Fruit Forum

Perry Pears: a modern bible

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Joan Morgan reviews the recently published volume on perry pears by Charles Martell

‘Real’ perry, made from the fermented juice of perry pears is enjoying a great revival in the hands of craftsmen perry makers based mainly in the English ‘Three Counties’ – Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. This resurgence of interest in fine perry is due to many factors, of which one very important contribution is the work undertaken by Charles Martell, recently published as Pears of Gloucestershire and Perry Pears of the Three Counties. Martell is a Gloucestershire dairy farmer and cheese maker, who in the 1980s could see the perry pear trees that formed part of his local landscape disappearing as the old traditions of combining live-stock and arable farming with orchards in the West Country were deemed uneconomic. He determined to rescue the varieties before these too vanished. Travelling all over the countryside he tracked down the trees and compiled this book: a directory to some 160 varieties; 100 of these are still growing on farms. Each entry comprises the variety’s history and its key features for the purposes of identification, plus notes and illustrations.

With trees located and verified it was possible to collect scion wood of known provenance and conserve the varieties in a collection: one was established in 1990 at the Three Counties Showground in Malvern, and in 2000 larger collections of all the extant varieties of perry pears were planted at the newly created National Perry Centre in the village of Hartpury in Gloucestershire. Prior to this perry pears were not well represented in UK collections. After the closure of fruit studies at Long Ashton Research Station in the 1980s its collection was lost, though some twenty varieties were replicated in the National Fruit Collection at Brodale in Kent. Bulmers, the well-known Hereford cider and perry company have a collection of varieties, but Martel knew many more existed on farms. Perry pear trees can be long lived – nearly 300 year-old trees continue to crop in Herefordshire – and varieties survive for centuries in neighbourhoods. A number became more widely planted across the ‘Three Counties’ and in Somerset and South Wales, while others were distributed over a comparatively small area close to their origin.

Finding the trees, identifying them and making new descriptions for previously un-recorded varieties was a monumental task taking thirty years of field work and documentation. In order to identify a perry pear, fruits and leaves must be collected, their distinguishing features noted and checked against past records where possible, drawings and photographs made and the habit of the tree ascertained. Some of the research was undertaken in the company of the late Ray Williams, formerly a pomologist at Long Ashton and often this took them to the very trees that Williams had recorded in his seminal work and guide to over fifty varieties, published in Perry Pears (edited by Luckwill & Pollard) in 1963.

Williams, in turn, had built on and extended the work of Dr. Herbert Durham, who was in charge of research at Bulmer’s during the 1920s-1930s. Martell discovered Durham’s photographs of trees, which had lain forgotten in the library of the Woolhope Naturalists Field Club, and used these records to help identify trees and varieties. The Woolhope, a natural history society in the Herefordshire village of that name, has long been involved in the story of perry and cider. In the 1870s the Woolhope masterminded publication of The Herefordshire Pomona, one of our most beautiful fruit books and the subsequent volume 'Vintage Fruits', devoted to cider apples and perry pears, both authored by the redoutable Victorian pomologist Dr. Robert Hogg and the Woolhope’s chairman and local physician Dr. Henry Bull. Detailed documentation of perry pears had began in the Pomona Herefordiensis of 1811 written by Thomas Andrew Knight, a Herefordshire squire and fruit breeder.

Martell has now brought the records right up-to-date and more, through establishing perry pear collections, which can themselves supply scion wood for future plantations and security for perry making enterprises, since the quality of a fine perry relies critically on the varieties used as well as the skills of the perry maker. Not only has his work set perry pears on the conservation agenda, but also the trees, in that he established whether each variety is still growing in reasonable numbers on farms, or might be considered rare ‘in the field’. Martell’s book is the culmination of dedicated, meticulous work and will undoubtedly become the standard reference volume - the modern perry pear bible. Although, the variety entries do not give any information on the quality of the pear’s juice and its potential for making perry, which may be a disappointment for perry makers.

A reference book for the specialist, but there are moments to charm any fruit buff and the general reader. The names alone are fascinating, recalling the originators of the variety or the farm on which it arose and more intriguing associations. The Late Treacle Pear, for instance, Martell suggests takes its name from local ‘treacle mines’, a euphemism for illicit distilleries making pear and cider spirit. Distillation is now permitted and Martell’s still on his farm in Dymock village produces ‘Vintage Pear Spirit’. He also uses perry from the Moorcroft pear, under its synonym Stinking Bishop (after Percy Bishop a notoriously misbehaved nineteenth century owner of Moorcroft Farm) to help create his well known ‘Stinking Bishop’ cheese. The rind is bathed in perry, which gives a distinctive flavour to a cheese made from the milk of Old Gloucester cows, an endangered breed that Martell rescued from possible extinction before embarking on pears.

During his journeys of discovery on the trail of pear trees serendipity occasionally played its part. One day, for some reason travelling by horse and cart Martell found trees of Flakey Bark pears that he had passed numerous times before without noticing them when driving by in the car. Then, while chatting over a farm gate he discovered the Cowslip pear. ‘There’s a cowslip’ said the farmer, but it was autumn and he was pointing not to a flower but a pear tree. We do not know how it acquired the name and, sadly, the farmer who might have known and the only person who knew of the whereabouts of the rare Cowslip pear tree died, but the variety was rescued.

This is a valuable new book, which owes its publication to Jim Chapman, who founded the National Perry Pear Centre and Hartpury Heritage Trust – the publisher. Chapman is also the editor and has set the catalogue of text, photographs (one for each extant variety) and line drawings in a spacious layout on nice cream paper with a soft green for the headings (the variety names) to deliver a well presented, pleasing volume. Congratulations to both of these enthusiasts for their tremendously efforts in raising the profile of perry pears in conservation circles as well as today’s working orchards and also to the Gloucestershire fruit community, who promise that this is but the first in a whole series of ‘The Gloucestershire Pomona’.

Joan Morgan

The Gloucestershire Pomona Series: Pears of Gloucestershire and Perry Pears of the Three Counties by Charles Martell, pp.214 many colour photographs and line drawings; published 2013 by Hartpury Heritage Trust. Cost: £30 for hardback, £25 for soft cover, both plus postage of £3.50 from Hartpury Heritage Trust, Prestberries Cottage, Blackwell's End, Hartpury, Gloucester GL19 3DB; See also Gloucesterhire Orchard Trust: