This summer a new craft cider, distilled from prized apple trees with roots in deepest Exmoor, launched to great acclaim. Secret Orchard Cider has been a project several years in the making, as disused orchards were coaxed lovingly back to life by local boys Joe Heley and Todd Studley, behind the ancient walls of Nettlecombe Estate.
The intrepid cider-makers were rewarded last summer with a bumper crop which, with skilled blending and small-batch techniques, has been crafted to achieve a clean, crisp cider with a gentle sparkle and a refreshing finish.
Tom Wolseley of Nettlecombe Estate, who entrusted the precious orchard to the care of Joe and Todd, commented: “I’m really proud of what they have achieved in their first year of production. The orchard has been transformed and great care taken over every part of the process to produce a thirst-quenching cider with the freshness of apples to the fore. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Secret Orchard Cider.”
Nettlecombe Estate lies in a secluded valley where the oak trees were once hand-selected for the English fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada. The walled orchards themselves are sloped and benefit from a sheltered and sunny aspect, but had become disused over time. Joe, a gardener and tree surgeon, oversaw their liberation from brambles and overgrown hedgerows (Nettlecombe means ‘the place where nettles grow’) and added fresh plantings of carefully selected varieties. “It was important to us to preserve the biodiversity of the orchards. Whilst we cleared the ground around the trees, we were also careful to leave a habitat for butterflies, bees and insects. Pears, plums, figs and blackberries also grow in the orchards as well as wild flowers and herbs, and we share the space with chickens, geese and pigs.”
During harvest 2013, family and friends descended to lend a hand gathering the precious crop, carefully washing the apples before pressing them for the juice. “It was a particularly good harvest, with both quality and quantity beyond what we could have hoped for,” said Joe. “It will be a while before the saplings we planted provide a proper crop, but the existing trees are all excellent traditional cider varieties – we are just adding to that with more of the same.”
Joe’s friend and business partner Todd, a chef by trade, put his taste buds to work blending various presses to produce the balance of freshness and flavour which would become the ‘Secret Orchard’ standard. “We were aiming for a refreshing cider but one with real character,” explained Todd. “We’ve had a lot of good feedback so far.” The bottles themselves were given the finishing touch by local artist Leo Davey, to produce a distinctive look and feel to match the unique origins of the juice.
Secret Orchard Cider is currently only available direct due to high demand. As yields increase Todd and Joe plan to sell to local pubs, restaurants and at farmer markets, allowing more people to experience the taste of these very special Exmoor orchards.