Perry is the half forgotten difficult brother of Cider. Perry is made from pears just as Cider is made from apples. However the drink and the word has never become mainstream. Books on Perry are invariably a book on Cider and Perry eg Thomas Knight Treatise on the culture of the Apple and Pear and on the manufacture of Cider and Perry 1801
So much so that modern drinks makers have ditched the name and refer to Perry as Pear Cider!
However Perry has a long history of being made here in Britain and Western Europe. Perry pears are thought to be descended from wild hybrids, known as wildings, between the cultivated pear Pyrus communis subspecies communis and the now-rare wild pear Pyrus communis subspecies pyraste. However unlike the apple the genetics are yet to be unravelled. The cultivated pear P. communis was brought to northern Europe by the Romans. In the fourth century AD Saint Jerome referred to perry as piracium. Pear trees are quite different to apples being larger and therefore less suited to an orchard, and also extremely long lived. Whilst a standard apple will crop for 50 years and last for 80 or so Perry trees will crop for 250 years at least. and given their size a single tree can supply a farm with enough fruit for the years Perry.
Wild pear hybrids were, over time, selected locally for desirable qualities and by the 1800s, many regional varieties had been identified. These local pears are particularly known for their picturesque names, eg. those named for the effects of their product (‘Merrylegs’, ‘Mumblehead’), pears commemorating an individual Stinking Bishop’, named for the man who first grew it, or ‘Judge Amphlett’, named for Assizes court judge Richard Amphlett, or those named for the place they grew (‘Hartpury Green’, or Bartestree Squash’). And one of Perry’s troubles started there. Literally each village or farm tree was given a name and many were the same cultivar. So confusion reigns. There are many hundreds of varieties and twice that number of names! Hopefully genetics will soon sort this out. Classification has so far evaded the leading people in the field from Thomas Knight in 1790s though to the present day. Thomas Knight has a special place in Perry history being the first person to illustrate a pear in a Pomona.
Perry has also been described as cider’s difficult cousin. It is slow to grow. It takes a long time to yield fruit. Hence the saying. Plant pears for your heirs” . Farmers are conservative and cautious and advertising novelties were needed to entice them to plant new perry trees eg Morse’s penny token. 1796. It was not until grafting onto Quince dwarfing rootstock was discovered that Perry Pears could be grown in an orchard with fruit production in a reasonable economic timeframe. RR Willians of Long Ashton pioneered farm orchard planing.
Perries are small and ugly difficult to harvest. They have a narrow window of ripeness, short as 2 days from rock hard to squidgy! Different varieties ripen at different times in the season and pears rot from inside out so is difficult to spot. And its not just the orchardist and maker affected, the drinker is faced with some smelling of cow dung and nail remover at same time. And other have a high amount of residual sorbitol which can cause diarrhea. Hence the saying ” Perry does down like velvet, round like thunder and out like lightening”.
Perry pear growing is a smaller area than culinary pear growing which is over Worcester Herefordshire Gloucester and Monmouthshire. Perry is said to best grow in sight of May Hill close to the Herefordshire /Gloucestershire border.
Farmers here used perry like cider to partly pay for agricultural labour in the fields, however as noted before there are differences from apple cider fewer larger trees, and the difficult brother is back with a tendency to throw a haze if mixed. Another reason that perry did not do ‘mainstream’
It is surprising that perry making has survived so long. Partly it is easier to leave these big trees than cut them down!
After Knight, many more illustrations of perry pears appeared in the “Herefordshire Pomona” by Hogg & Bull 1879.
Great perry required a good glass and sometimes amongst the cider glasses of the 18thC can be found one with pear engravings.
However major recognition of perry occurred due to the interventions of CW Radcliffe Cooke, great advocate for cider and perry, initially letters to ‘The Times’ and ‘The Field’ and then when he became the MP for Hereford at national level. He was nickname the “Member for Cider” A book about Cider and Perry 1898 was produced from those articles. His knowledge of extensive. He persuaded the Government of the day no to impose tax and also with R Neville Grenville paved the way for the formation of the National Fruit and Cider Institute.
B T P Barker director of the Institute from 1904 for 38 years and initiated plantings of perry in different terroirs, eg soil, climate, type of rootstock interstem etc. Eg Blakeney Red grown on the flood plains of the Severn produces what Hogg and Bull call “abominable trash” whereas on the higher land of the Royal Forrest of Dean it makes excellent perry. Hendre Home farm Monmouthshire trial orchard Barker
The next perry advocate in this story is Herbert Edward Durham, a medical doctor who joined Bulmers in 1905 due to ill health. He solved a lot of technical problems with fermenting perry and surveyed the 3 counties often seen on horseback. Atempting to classify the trees he attached lead labels to the trees, some which remain to day. He presented his work to the RHS 1945 with a presentation called The Beauty and use of the Vintage Pear” only 4 days before his death aged 79.
Showerings built of that work by Durham to produced Babycham, see another article in the Musings.
Further recent books such as “The book of Pears by Joan Morgan and Rears of Gloucestershire & Perry Pears of the Three Counties by Charles Martell have added to the knowledge of Perry.
However the definitive book on Perry remains the book “Perry Pears” from the National Fruit and Cider Institute Long Ashton 1963
With all these problems it is fair to ask …why? and the simple answer is that a good perry is magnificent and surpasses cider or champagne. Examples such as those produced by Tom Oliver or Mike Johnson should be sought. I remember to this day my fist drink of Ross on Wye’s Flakey Bark perry.