HRH The Prince of Wales’s private orchard offers sanctuary to many heirloom fruit trees – which can now be enjoyed as a heritage brandy, says Kevin Pilley
Each autumn the former conservation photographer Barney Wilczak is allowed to raid the Prince of Wale’s private orchard at the edge of his Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire, which Wilczak then uses to make a heritage fruit brandy.
Time to join the gin craze? Artisan production, provenance and healthy botanicals are ensuring that gin is now as clear as its reputation, says Ettie Neil-Gallacher.
When should you drink sherry? Don’t reserve sherry for the local clergy and your maiden aunts, says Jonathan Ray, who is determined to imbibe some Spanish sunshine daily.
THE PRINCE OF WALES’S PRIVATE ORCHARD
Few men have royal approval to raid a prince’s orchard but Barney Wilczak does. Four or five times every autumn, the former conservation photographer can pick as many apples as he wants from the private orchard and apple bank at the edge of HRH The Prince of Wales’ Highgrove estate, in Gloucestershire. The collection comprises some of the UK’s oldest and rarest apple varieties, including a sapling from the apple tree in Sir Isaac Newton’s garden at Woolsthorpe Manor, in Lincolnshire.
Wilczak, a recycling proponent, takes his spoils back to the timber and Cotswold-stone lean-to greenhouse of the family home in Stratten, near Tetbury, where, with the help of his partner, Hannah, and two Czech stills, he presses and ferments them to make heritage fruit brandy: the authentically British Capreolus Distillery Eau de Vie. “I was put in touch with David Wilson, who farms Duchy Home Farm; he is a specialist in the preservation of heirloom crops,” explains Wilczak. “It was only then that I discovered what they were growing and what a wonderful resource it was. They were keen to work locally and my background parallels so much of what they are trying to achieve in terms of sustainability.”
The Duchy of Cornwall bought the 1,000-acre Highgrove estate in 1980 from Maurice Macmillan. The farm became organic in 1985 and the orchard was added in 2015. “The main reason the orchard was planted was as a gene bank for genetic conservation, which is a theme Prince Charles regards as one of the central strands of sustainability,” explains Wilson. “We depend on fewer genes than ever for our food, due to the control of breeding programmes by global companies. This theme extends to rare-breed livestock and old varieties of cereal, as well as vegetables.”
The orchard must be the first – and perhaps only – one in the world to be planted alphabetically: ‘Sunrise’ is in front of ‘Sweet 16’ and ‘Telstar’; the ‘Princess Alexandra’ apple has precedence over ‘Princess Beatrix’. The trees were mostly provided by the Brogdale Collections – the National Fruit Collection, which comprises 2,131 apple trees, 523 pears, 404 cherries, 332 plums, 19 quince , 48 nut trees and four medlars.
For Wilczak, the orchard – nicknamed The Field of 1,000 Trees – is an astonishing treasure. “It’s unlike any other that any fruit distiller has access to. Just 11 miles away from us, it is a genetic repository whose importance for the preservation of traditional varieties and future breeding stock is enormous. The apples range in colour from blood red to yellow, green and even black. Many [varieties] are local and many near lost.”
Before Wilczak appeared on the scene, their commercial value was limited, with the apples driven 180 miles to Devon, where they were turned anonymously into apple juice by a large producer. “We are now taking these apples that few people will ever have the chance to experience – apples from the size of a child’s head to a thimble – to produce an annual field blend. It means rare varieties aren’t lost and we can make an income through delivering them into the higher echelon restaurants. We’re careful that we are not connected to the Highgrove brand. It is a local farm that happens to be part of the estate.”
Wilczak works with all Highgrove’s 1,000 apple varieties, although because of biennialism and climatic pressures on individual varieties, he treats each harvest as an unrepeatable annual blend. “Each bottle acts as an incredible record of both season, landscape and fruit. These varieties challenge what we have come to expect from fruit and eau-de-vie fine fruit brandies.” He explains that he pays double the market value for the fruit, “because we are so demanding on quality”, and donates £5 for every bottle sold to the Prince’s Countryside Fund.
Established by Prince Charles in 2010, the fund aims to enhance the prospects of family-farm businesses and the quality of rural life. Over the past decade, it has given more than £10m to 400 projects working across the UK. It also supports projects that invigorate rural communities, such as the volunteer-run shop and café at Bledington, in Oxfordshire, which, says the fund’s Ellie Jesson, “has provided a lifeline to residents unable to travel further afield for their essential shopping over the past year”. She explains that the charity is very grateful for Wilczak’s donation: “[It] allows us to carry out our work equipping family farms with the tools to adapt and become sustainable for the future, looking after our countryside and producing food for the nation, through our Farm Resilience Programme.”
Capreolus – taken from the Latin word for roe deer – is a small, terroir-focused distillery. This means more than 90% of the fruit comes from within 50 miles and spirits are made using exclusively wild-yeast fermentations, only working from the fruits’ natural sugar (atypical for low-yielding fruits), with no enzymes and no adulteration of the finished product beyond adding water for dilution. “We are incredibly lucky to be in one of the finest areas for fruit-breeding in Europe, amidst hundreds of pears, plums and apples, and having the privilege of being able to pick fruit at its absolute peak,” Wilczak says. Most of the Eau de Vie the company produces has never been distilled in the UK before. “Our yields are as low as 45kg of fruit to the finished litre. However, this enormous compression brings you closer to the parent tree or plant, with the amplification of flavours not even perceptible in the raw fruit.”
Capreolus’s macerated range comprises plum, greengage, quince plus blackcurrant, blackberry (used by a Michelin-starred restaurant as a pure essence for sweet and savoury dishes), perry pear and barrel-aged Harry Masters Jersey apples, as well as ‘The Field of a 1,000 Trees’. “So far we have produced 106 bottles of damson Eau de Vie, 142 greengage and 194 apple,” Wilczak explains. “We also hand pick the raspberries: 1,000 pips in every glass.”
And although eau-de-vie is usually made from any fruit except grape, the Capreolus Distillery makes it from Bacchus and Siegerrebe (the latter being a cross between Gewurztraminer and Madeleine Angevine varieties), which come from the nearby Three Choirs vineyard, in Newent.
As a result, Wilczak is often elbow-deep in fruit: the quince eau-de-vie alone calls for a massive 2,300kg, since he uses 25kg of fruit for every litre. Every year, he hand-grades and washes 100kg of pears (from varieties such as ‘Brandy’, ‘Green Horse’ and ‘Blakeney Red’) and de-stones every Vale of Evesham plum he uses (his latest plum brandy has gone into Tokaji Aszú puttonyos barrels from the Tokaj-Hétszölö Imperial estate vineyards in Hungary). Most eaux-de-vie are bottled without ageing to preserve the integrity of the fruit character. “Capreolus is one of the most exciting producers in the world at the moment,” says Master of Wine Dawn Davies, head buyer at The Whisky Exchange. “Barney’s up there with the best producers of eau-de-vie, such as Capovilla and Rochelt.”
Quite a feat for someone from a hitherto unknown eau-de-vie-making region such as Gloucestershire (the drink is thought to have first been made in France’s Segonzac region and is mainly associated with France, south Germany, Switzerland and the Balkans). Wilczak’s response is that “everything is the ultimate expression of parentage and locale. I want to capture the vitality of fruit.” He grew up picking sloes and bullaces and blackberries in the hedgerows: “What I’m always trying to do – with royal assistance now – is recapture those intangible moments. That means trying to express the whole plant, not just the fruit.”
His distillates are the result of “deep research and obsessive focus” and he confesses to “a lifelong fascination with fermentation”. His goal is “to pursue and capture perfection” and to make the finest fruit brandies from the free-draining, limestone-rich soils of his home county. “We never chill-filter our spirits. Flavour is more important than appearance, and the clouds of essential oils that appear on cooling or dilution are a signifier of the depth of flavour within. To create such a wonderful product is a costly pursuit, without compromise.” The spirits are even hand bottled and finished with traditionally printed letterpress labels.
When you drink Wilznack’s 1,000 Trees Eau de Vie, you are tasting varieties brought to this country by Roman generals and old species, such as Duck’s Bill, Forty Shilling and Bloody Ploughman. And the drink made with last year’s harvest may be even more special: “This year’s frosts took an expected four to six tons of fruit down to an expected crop of one,” he says. “The 2020 vintage will be all the more precious.”