Alongside its thriving food economy, Dorset is home to a growing collection of innovative drinks producers. West Dorset’s Liberty Fields is in the unique position of having a foot in both camps, with both a fine traditional method apple balsamic, their sublime Apple Aperitif and two new exciting additions to the range in the pipeline.
For me Apple Aperitif evokes memories of my Mum’s baked apples, buttery and musky, sprinkled with spices and stuffed full of plump sultanas. I first came across it at one of the areas many excellent food fairs and now make sure to always hold back my last few coins to indulge my predilection. With the news that they are set to launch a single variety heritage apple vodka, I headed to their remote Halstock orchard to meet founders Robert Imlach, Vicky Morland, Pete Lemmey and Alison Lemmey to find out more:
How did you come to found an orchard in west Dorset?
A good few years ago, we were on holiday in Italy, and had the chance to look around a real balsamic vinegar producer in Modena, and to taste some of their amazing products. When we came back, Robert (who was originally a chef and was then running a business making salad dressings and marinades) noticed Nigel Stewart, a local cider maker, planting some new cider orchards.
Research had shown him that the Trebbiano grape has the same flavour notes and characteristics as the west country cider apples, and that there are a handful of producers of balsamic vinegar using apples in the north of Italy. He started wondering if it would be possible to make traditional Balsamic vinegar, but using local apples to make a truly unique product.
We were able to purchase surplus apples from local cider producers, but after several years we got very lucky: our friends, Pete and Ali Lemming , were looking for ways to diversify on land owned by their family farm (Liberty Farm), and we discovered that we could apply for a grant to help with planting trees and converting derelict farm buildings into a purpose built solera for the barrels, and production unit alongside. We went into business together and are now all equal partners in Liberty Fields.
We planted the first trees in 2010, and now have 1700 trees on 12 acres.
When you planted a Dorset apple orchard people must have been rather surprised to discover you did not intend on making cider. Why bypass a Westcountry tradition?
There are already so many brilliant local cider producers and we didn’t want to tread on any toes! But the purpose of planting our own trees in the first place was to provide a reliable souce of the raw ingredient for our Balsamic Vinegar, and then we decided to explore what we could do with the different tastes.
How many varieties are there in the orchard?
There are nearly 70! We wanted to have apples which had the full range of different tastes, from bitter to sweet, as we’re all about exploring the taste of apples. We started out planting the best local heritage apples – Yarlington Mill, Somerset Redstreak, Filbarrel, Dabinett, Court de Wyke, and of course Porter’s Perfection. We included some of the new varieties from the Long Ashton Research Centre (Debbie and Helen). We were then contacted by Liz Copas, a local cider apple expert, who had run a project identifying and then propagating a selection of rare West Dorset cider apple
varieties. We are one of three places which has trees from the Dorset Mother Orchard.
We’ve also planted a selection of interesting heritage dessert and cooking apples, so we could have some apples to pick and eat.
You’re preserving many heritage varieties – why is this important?
Dorset used to have many acres of cider apples, sometimes just a few trees next to a farmhouse, sometimes as full orchards. Most of these have been grubbed up and the unique varieties lost forever. Where trees survive, there are sometimes only one or two left, so it is really vital to preserve them. The aim of the Mother Orchard is to preserve these trees and provide budwood so people can grow Dorset varieties in their gardens and orchards.
Your Apple balsamic is a true labour of love, tell me a little more about the process…
We make our Balsamic in the traditional Italian method, which is a very long slow process. The apples are milled then pressed to release the juice. As in Modena, the juice is then heated very gradually over a long period – not boiled – gradually driving off the moisture and intensifying the flavours. It is allowed to acetify and then placed in barrels in our solera.
This is warm in the summer, so that the Balsamic evaporates, reduces and thickens. We don’t add any flavouring or colouring, it’s just completely natural. Currently we produce 6 year old balsamic but in Italy you can get up to 50 year old!
I like to use your balsamic very simply to dip good bread. What is the most creative way you’ve seenone of your products used?
Some enterprising people are making cocktails with it! There’s a really nice recipe, called a Strawberry Fields, which involves pureed strawberries, balsamic and – of course – gin, which was created by David Smith (of the Anchor at Seatown).
We’ve also heard of people putting it in rhubarb ice-cream, and it goes very well with scallops. But my favourite is serving a couple of drops with soft goats cheese, a slice of pear, walnuts and some rocket – the perfect easy starter.
West Dorset is known as a particularly foodie area. Is it a hard audience to please or are people simply more receptive to the level of quality you’re trying to produce?
We are very lucky being based in West Dorset, there’s such a huge interest in new food and drink round here. Everyone is always really excited to try new things. When we’ve done shows in other areas, people are far less interested in provenance. I think people round here are genuinely interested and keen to try new products, which is great.
Where can we buy your products? Any glamorous stockists?!
There are obviously some excellent local outlets – Washingpool Farm Shop, Ammonite Fine Foods in Lyme Regis, the Fridge in Dorchester, Delicious Deli in Weymouth, and of course Halstock Village Shop. Further afield, you can find us in Partridges of Sloane Square, the fabulous Gloucester Services North (a real foodie destination), Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury and the National Trust shops at Tyntesfield and Dyrham Park. There’s a full list on our website.
You’re set to become the second West Dorset business producing a one-of-a-kind vodka. What’s the appeal of that market? And how will your vodka differ from existing examples?
Our ethos is all about exploring the different tastes of apples, so producing Porter’s Perfection Vodka, using the unique heritage apple from our orchards, was a natural development.
We’re the first people to use a specific heritage apple in this way, and the taste is like the first bite of a crisp apple – refreshing, subtle and clean. As it isn’t a flavoured vodka, you can mix it in any of your favourite cocktails, but it’s also lovely as a sipping vodka, serve chilled. It makes a great partner to our Apple Aperitif and Lloyd Brown of the Venner Bar in Bridport is already working on some fabulous cocktail recipes using both the Vodka and the Aperitif.
What’s next for Liberty Fields?
Launching Porter’s Perfection Vodka in May is going to be very exciting, and we’re also aiming to launch another new product in the summer, Apple Liqueur. These will both help us to grow the business as sustainably as possible, but we will still only be dealing with independent retail outlets; it’s really important to us to support that kind of business, so you won’t ever be seeing our products on sale in a supermarket.
We’re looking at ways to increase work experience and volunteering opportunities for young adults with learning disabilities at the orchard (we currently have students from Lufton Cambian College on two days a week).
We’re aiming to have more open days at the orchards, so more people can come and see what we do and just enjoy being in the orchard, especially when the blossom is out. It’s a beautiful spot and we’d like to share it! Our next Open Day is likely to be in early May and details will be on our website (www.libertyfields.co.uk) and Facebook page.