Cider making has been part of life in the Westcountry for centuries. Philip Bowern meets a cider-maker who believes the traditional ways are still the best.
"Terroir" is not a word you hear a lot from the cider drinkers of South Devon.
The French expression for the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a drink by the environment in which it is produced, would probably be considered a bit pretentious by the average ruddy-cheeked quaffer of fermented Westcountry apple juice.
But spend a couple of hours in the delightful company of the princess of regional cider making, Tasha Bradley, and you soon understand that landscape and tradition play a huge part in the delicious drink she produces.
Not that Tasha is in the slightest bit pretentious about what she does.
In her 'office' – a garden shed erected inside the large barn that is headquarters of Heron Valley, the cider and drinks business she runs from deep in the South Hams countryside – she is refreshingly down to earth about cider-making.
It is, in her eyes, about selecting the right fruit, treating it in the right way and letting the natural processes of fermentation take their course, with a final blend for quality, flavour and consistency.
The Heron Valley story began with her parents, Steve and Shirley Bradley who quit London for a run-down Devon longhouse to bring up their five daughters and start a farm.
After a couple of moves the family arrived at Crannacombe – Saxon for valley of the Herons – and began making apple juice and cider as a sideline to the farming business. A new Devon brand was born.
Tasha, passionate about food and drink, began helping her father with the cider making, attending the agricultural shows and learning the business, from harvesting apples to selling the finished product.
And all the time her understanding of the link between the Devon countryside she loves and the juice and cider it yields was growing. "I do think of it as 'terroir'" she admits. "That sense of absolutely local. I don't think of Devon, even, I think of the South Hams. I feel very passionately that we have a unique landscape. In 400 square miles we have got Dartmoor and we have got the sea and that is pretty unusual and special."
Tasha's passion for the countryside of the South Hams earned her a first job marketing the district's food and drink. She moved on to work for the surf clothing brand Animal Clothing. "I started as a marketing consultant. The company grew and I was with them for eight years, ending up as marketing director for the UK and Europe. I spent a lot of time in Switzerland and France, developing sales, met my partner and had two children, Jasmin and Cosmo."
But the relationship with her partner ended and, as a single mother with two children, Tasha came back to Devon, bought a tumbledown house not far from her parents and slowly restored it. She boosted her summer income by moving out and renting the property to holidaymakers while she and the children moved into an old caravan.
"I lived in a wreck of a house but I was so happy to be back in Devon," she said. "All the time I had been away abroad I had been thinking about home. On stormy days I would think 'I' d be at Start Point today'. When it was hot and sunny I'd imagine myself on the beach in Salcombe. The South Hams were always drawing me back home."
When she finally made it back to Devon she needed a job. She entered the marine electronics business, selling radar systems and – as a born saleswoman – she thrived.
But as her parents began planning to wind down their involvement in the cider and apple juice business, Tasha decided she wanted to take over. She drew up a business plan, took a sizeable loan and bought out her sisters to assume full control of Heron Valley.
"I made every mistake possible for about six years," she said. "And in this business, which is so seasonal, mistakes can be very costly." Yet in fact, her business model was very sound and straightforward – work hard, hold down costs, invest profits back in the business and, crucially, make a brilliant product, or several.
Cider remains at the heart of the Heron Valley brand but soft drinks – grown-up juices, and sparking drinks like elderflower, lime and ginger and nettle fizz – actually bring in a significant proportion of the profits. Seven years on from her initial takeover, Tasha has paid off her loan and built a strong brand and a strong business.
She has even been able drop the 'single mum' tag having met and then married Barney Green after meeting him when he gatecrashed a beach barbecue she was hosting in Salcombe. "He was a welcome gatecrasher because he brought a kit to make mojito cocktails," she joked. The couple married in 2010.
The family now lives in Heron Valley, close to Tasha's parents who still farm there and almost next door to her mother-in-law, who has bought a house there too. It is idyllic and underscores the importance of 'place' in creating the cider and soft drinks and is what enables the family to run a business in such a beautiful spot.
It also determines the speed of growth at Heron Valley, which can best be described as 'organic' like many of the company's products. "I truly believe small is beautiful." said Tasha. "I don't have the vanity to think that if I got to a pub or a cafe in London or wherever my products should be on sale. I just want to make the best drinks I can in a place that I love."
That is good news for the nine full and part-time employees who work at Heron Valley including production manager Liz and cider-maker James – both long-serving stalwarts of the business.
Recently the company received a grant that helps support its production of soft drinks and enabled Tasha to maintain the employment of at least one staff member. "We had a grant from the South Devon Coastal Local Action Group which distributes EU funds which helped us buy carbonation equipment for our soft drinks," she said.
Further development is proposed with the purchase of a new site a mile or so up the road where Heron Valley plans to build a timber-clad cider production unit and plant a new orchard.
Fruit currently comes in from the myriad of tiny orchards around the southern South Hams. Most of them are within a six-mile radius and none is further away than 17 miles. But the appalling 2012 harvest demonstrated the precarious nature of relying on outside suppliers alone to provide almost all the fruit.
On the new site, of around 14 acres, Heron Valley will be able to provide more of its own cider apples. Tasha said: "We will plant a 'mother orchard' of traditional varieties and some more productive trees – a mixture of bittersweets, bittersharps, sweets and sharps – all that you need for making cider. But we will always take in fruit from orchards in this area – that's what accounts for our success; our relationship with the farmers and orchard owners around and about."
It comes back, once again, to that all important 'terroir'.