Belgian and French monks, as we know, spend their days brewing hellishly strong fruity beers to sell to hipsters in the East Village and Shoreditch. Beer being the new wine, and all that, and hipsters being the kind of eejits who will pay top dollar for a beer that tastes of strawberries and – many hours later – peels off your skull from the inside.
Beer is not made out of fruit
We’ve generally eschewn that sort of thing in the UK, where it’s clearly understood that beer is not made out of fruit. Your dad’s terrible wine is made out of fruit, but beer – no.
The only monks in the UK who have understood this proud homebrew heritage are the Benedictines, who between them are responsible for the infamous Buckfast Tonic Wine – ‘Buckie’, the drinker’s friend – and Ampleforth cider.
The former, made by the monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, has a reputation that preceeds it into hospital casualty departments and When Drink Goes Bad viral videos.
The latter though is lately making a bid for respectability, on the back of rising interest in artisan-produced drinks. After all, you can’t get much more back-to-the-earth than a monk in sandals picking fruit from trees. And as Ampleforth Abbey is, relatively speaking, just around the corner from me, in the North York Moors National Park, I thought I’d go and take a look at harvest time.It might be fresh-faced and wholesome, but it also turns out to be fairly big business for the abbey. Seven acres of orchards, two thousand trees, forty traditional varieties of apple – and a fistful of awards at serious food and drink festivals and ceremonies over the last few years.
Everything is still done by hand
To be fair, everything is still done by hand – from the picking of the apples to all the work in the cider mill, in which hangs a heavy miasma of fermented apples and buzzing wasps, which the operatives take in their stride.
The monks brought the knowledge with them from – where else? – France, back in 1802, when an exiled Benedictine community set down roots in the North Yorkshire countryside. They’ve been making cider, beer and brandy ever since, at first in small quantities for – ahem – personal use, but latterly to generate revenue for the abbey.
They run tours throughout the year, and there are different things to see at different times. Fantastic blossom on the trees between April and June; heavy crops of apples from July to September; and then pressing, fermenting and bottling in the autumn. The apple juice is allowed to ferment for eight months before being used, which is about seven months and 29 days longer than any multinational commercial cider maker manages.
The monks even have their own pub!
The monks even have their own pub. I know! Let’s all sign on, right now. It’s a vocation, sure, and you have to get up at the crack of dawn, but come on, an abbey with a pub!
Disclaimer – I don’t really like cider. If I wanted to get drunk with apples, I’d eat apples while drinking beer.
But this was a fascinating look at how local produce and artisan methods gain a toehold in the most unlikely of places. And the orchards are stunning – serried rows of head-high trees, shaped by hand and cosseted, fed, watered and plucked by basket-carrying monks maintaining a 200-year-old tradition in the green North York Moors countryside.
Tours of Ampleforth Abbey orchards – take place throughout the year, though check the website for seasonal variations.
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