After almost 4 years in the making, our sparkling mead 2018 is finally ready. We are thrilled with its honeyed, sweet flavour and complex floral aroma.
As you may or may not know, mead is simply fermented honey. I’ve been a beekeeper for over 15 years, and have enjoyed keeping honey bees in my own garden and public gardens such as RHS Wisley and Polesden Lacey in Surrey. Although I’ve always made a demijohn or two of mead from the honey, 2018 was such a good year for my bees, with lots of warmth and sunshine, it meant I had enough honey to make my first large batch (250 champagne bottles) to share with my customers.
Due to the portrayal of mead in medieval and fantasy movies in the last few years such as Lord or the Rings, Last Kingdom, The Vikings etc it has become the most fashionable drink in town (or the countryside in our case) . The sort of tipple that any self-respecting hipster should be seen sipping whilst stroking their finely trimmed beards and discussing existential philosophy.
The first time I drank mead was in a village in northern Brittany, France about 25 years ago. I was expecting a weak, sweet liquid, the sort of thing that you swig from a large tankard, flagon or even from a large horn like a Viking. So, I was amazed when it was served to me in a champagne flute. The mead was far more like a delicate fine wine, than a beer or cider. It had a complex and intriguingly nuanced flavour, and had an alcohol strength more akin to wine. Far from being sweet, it was drier than an A-level physics lesson.
Mead is considered to the oldest of all alcoholic beverages, with archaeological evidence being found in the remnants 9000 year old pottery jars (7000BC) in Ancient North China (Neolithic village of jiahu, in the Henan proviance). Afterwards, the drinking of mead spread to other ancient civilizations such as Greece, Rome and Egypt.
It is a drink shrouded in mystery and magic. So whether you associate with Celts, Pagans, Druids, Saxons, Normandy, Vikings or even a bit of Norse or Egyptian mythology there is always some symbolism or affinity for you to relate to, when imbuing this magical potion.
Did you Know?
Feeling guilty about having a glass of wine or mead in the evening? Well, it all seemed to be very acceptable a few centuries ago in Anglo Saxon England. Indeed, the name supper actually comes from the Anglo Saxon word ‘Supan’ meaning 'To drink'. And if you needed anymore evidence, our word 'Evening' is derived from ‘Aefen’, meaning ‘drinking time’. Cheers.
This weekend we hosted a 'wild' cocktail day at Torre Abbey, which saw 20 guests coming to sample our newly invented 'Torre Abbey Cocktail'.
The event involved Simon giving a tour of the walled garden at Torre Abbey and discussing the different plants that could be used to make drinks, and how to grow them at home. As they went around the garden, the guests picked foliage, flowers and fruits which were then used to make a wild cocktail at the end of the tour, served in a Yarde of Cockington champagne flute.
Ingredients included nettles, rose petal, lemon verbena, stevia, fennel, lavender, borage and many other herbs.
The Torre Abbey cocktail was Yarde's own interpretation of the Downtown Abbey Cocktail (vodka, champagne and elderflower cordial), where we switched champagne for Yarde's sparkling rose petal wine.
The guests then added their collected and foraged ingredients from the garden to the Torre Abbey cocktail. Instead of using plastic stirrers, we used rosemary stems.
Big thank you to the Torre Abbey team for their help, and the head gardener Ali Marshall for allowing us to use the ingredients from the garden.
Thank you for all the lovely comments regarding our appearance on the Devon and Cornwall programme on Channel Four, as the camera followed Simon foraging for nettles at Torre Abbey, and making it into Sparkling nettle wine.
Ironically, the programme was narrated by John Nettles.
If you did miss it, you can catch up here on All Four.
We appear in the second and fourth part.
(First shown - Channel Four, Monday 28 June 8pm.)
Behind the scenes
Below is a photo of the film crew, with myself and Ali, head gardener at Torre Abbey. As you can see Ali (on the right), couldn't stop giggling after just one sip of sparkling nettle wine.
It's obviously good stuff haha.
And here is a photo of me during filming, after sipping the nettle wine....I didn't need to prop myself up or anything. I couldn't stop giggling either.
The original idea of the programme, was for the camera to follow me as I went to look around Torre Abbey for rare plants to create an unusual, quirky sparkling wine. As I know Torre Abbey fairly well, I was secretly hoping to pick hibiscus flowers in the palm house. But sadly the flowers had just gone over.
So, I decided instead to pick stinging nettles from the gardens for my unusual wild wine ingredient. They obviously, aren't that rare, but I thought they would make a fantastic, sparkling aromatic, and herbaceous scented wine. One of the advantages to picking from the walled garden at Torre Abbey as opposed to just about anywhere else, is that the gardens are organic, and as dog's aren't allowed in the grounds, are guaranteed to be free from dog wee!
I'm not sure Ali, Head Gardener was entirely chuffed at me drawing attention to the nettles at Torre Abbey on camera, but she is at least still speaking to me. And of course, nettles are wonderful for encouraging wildlife into the garden, and makes great liquid plant feed, rich in nitrogen. And I would add, the gardens are Torre Abbey are beautifully maintained and cared for, and not covered in weeds.
I must admit to having been quite nervous when turning up a few months later for the tasting of the nettle wine with all of Torre Abbey's garden volunteers. Channel Four wanted to make sure they got the genuine, authentic reactions from the volunteers, and so I was concerned that they might not like it, perhaps even spit it out and swear, and that would have looked terrible on camera. Thankfully, they all seemed to love it, and I was genuinely overwhelmed by all of their lovely comments about the nettle wine.
So massive thank you to Torre Abbey, the gardener volunteers at Torre Abbey, and for Ali Marshall the Head Gardener who allowed me to pick the nettles from the garden.
We've been making a sparkling lilac wine, inspired by Jeff Buckley's Lilac wine song, (there are other versions of the song lilac wine, but this is definitely our favourite)
In fact we have been playing the song constantly on loop in Yarde's Wild Winery while we made this batch. It is such a chilled and mellow song, perfect for creating a moody, inspiring, working atmosphere.
Lilac flowers were picked from the side of our wild winery in Stoke Gabriel. We used the common 'lilac' coloured plant first , Syringa vulgaris., and then added a white variety Syringa vulgaris 'Madame lemoine' a few weeks later when that came into flower, as it had an even more powerful scent.
We're not sure how it will turn out yet, but the fragrance was wonderfully intoxicating as we picked the flowers and infused it with water, sugar, lemon and yeast to make the sparkling wild wine.
Really excited about the potential flavour and aromas, but disappointingly, the wine isn't lilac coloured.. So I might have to squeeze a few wild blackberries into it in late summer, to improve the colour, and make it pinky-purple.
I've only made a single batch of 200 litres. So we will only have 266 champagne bottles available in year or two's time.
We love foraging. And why wouldn't we, with views like this. We've been picking gorse again to capture the amazing coconut aroma and make it into wild gorse sparkling wine.
The steep cliff where we harvest the gorse from overlooks an unnamed secret cove, which we call Smuggler's beach. It is completely hidden from the coast path above it, and out of view from the sea, due to the jagged headlands and large rocks in front of it.
It can only be accessed by either boat, although the hidden rocks just below the surface are treacherous, or by us 'gorse pickers' scrambling down the steep, lethal, hidden Wrecker's path.
It's a secret paradise, with just lizards sunbathing on the rocks for company.
It's an amazing spot for a wild swim.
Above, a gorgeous clump of sea campion on the secret Wreckers trail, leading to smugglers beach. Sadly, we can't make drinks from this beautiful plant.
Above Lizards (viviparous or common lizards) on Smuggler's Beach
We've been busy harvesting dandelions from Torre Abbey Gardens near Torquay to make Sparkling Dandelion Wine.
We like to call dandelions ‘nature’s gold’. Not just because of the colour, but because of the richness it provides to both gardeners and wildlife. We reckon everybody should try and find room for a few dandelions in their garden. They are just as beautiful as any sunflower with their bright golden flowerheads and attractive serrated foliage.
Indeed, in some countries, particularly in northern Europe and Scandinavia, going to see the stunning meadows full of dandelions in spring, is akin to the Japanese appreciation and celebration of cherry blossom. (Sakura)
The wildlife love dandelions too. Leave a few flowers in your garden and it will attract pollinating insects, which will in addition, turn their attention to pollinating your fruit trees and vegetables. The seeds and nectar from these 'weeds' are an important source of food for birds, butterflies, bees, beetles etc, while creatures such as rabbits adore the nutritious foliage.
However, perhaps, best of all, is the flowers make a delicious sparkling dandelion wine.
Did you know? – Dandelions are so called due to their jagged-looking foliage which looks like a lion’s tooth. The name is derived from the French for Dent de Lion. However, that isn't the only similarity with a lion, as it is said the flowers look like the golden mane of the male.
Although dandelions flower sporadically throughout the year, Mid-March to Mid-April is the main season for picking, when fields, meadows and roadsides turn bright gold with their bright flower heads which sparkle in the spring sunshine.
Did you know? The botanical name for dandelion is Taraxacum officinale, with the genus of the name being derived from the Arabic word ‘tarakhshaqun’ meaning ‘bitter herb’ although we think the foliage tastes delicious.
Seeking out dandelions
It may look as if there are thousands of dandelions out in mid spring, but it is harder than you think to find suitable ones for harvesting and making dandelion wine.
Firstly, many of the ones you see will be flowering on the sides of roads, and we don’t want to pick any flowers that have been contaminated with car exhausts or other pollution.
Secondly, most places where you see them in public spaces and on the sides of footpaths are also popular with dog walkers and therefore we avoid picking in these places too.
Finally, many of the dandelions in fields have been sprayed or fed with artificial fertilizers, so again we avoid picking these flowers.
Thankfully, we have found the perfect place to pick dandelions. The organic gardens at Torre Abbey Gardens near Torquay. These are organic gardens and free from dogs, meaning the dandelions are pure and clean. The Head Gardener of Torre Abbey, Ali Marshall, allows dandelions to flourish in some of the ‘wilder’ areas of the garden. Thankfully, there are hundreds for us to pick, although we always ensure we leave plenty behind for the wildlife to enjoy too.
Its not all fine and dandy
Harvesting dandelions is back-breaking work as we spend the day bent over double picking the beautiful golden flowerheads from meadows, but we are happy to suffer for our art.
Another downside of harvesting dandelions, are the stained hands. It took me ages to wash the golden marks off my hands.
Once the dandelions have been picked, they need to have the green ‘ball’ just behind the flower head removed, as this can cause the sparkling dandelion wine to taste bitter.
And you have to be quick in processing the flowers after you have picked them, as the flowers quickly close up.
We pick all our dandelions on sunny days (not always easy in England). The reason for picking on sunny days is that the flowers are out in full, and there is more pollen and nectar, which will be reflected in the flavour of the wine.
Did you know? Dandelion flowers are a well known diuretic, and the French word for a dandelion is pissenlit, which means 'Wet the bed''.
Dandelion flower heads, with the bitter green balls at the back of the flowers having been removed. They are floating in water, waiting to be turned into wine.
Masters of survival
When you consider how versatile and adaptive, they are to their environment, it should come as no surprise that scientists believe dandelions have been around for over 30 million years, and have now expanded from Asia, to colonise much of the planet.
Dandelions are remarkable plants, and if the grass where they grow has been mowed, they will flower on shorter stalks, making them truly one of the cleverest and most adaptable of plants. This means, next time the grass is cut, the mower blades won’t remove the flower heads, enabling them to produce seed and reproduce. Their seed heads can float over 8km on the wind, meaning they can always find a new location to extend their family. And to reproduce, they don’t need to be pollinated. Their seed is cleverly designed, with each one attached to a ‘parachute’ to transport it further away and help it spread.
Furthermore, if you try and pull out their long tap root and it breaks into pieces, all those pieces will germinate to form lots more plants. If you add the roots to your compost, they will also continue to grow.
All of this adapting and growing is hard work, therefore dandelions conserve energy by closing its flowers at night, and only opening them in the morning once the sun is out.
And although in the past, dandelions have been persecuted remorselessly by gardeners as they attempt to remove them from their finely, manicured, smooth lawns, they have many uses. Their roots can be made into coffee or a root beer, leaves can be used in salads, and the flowers make delicious teas or wines. In addition, the flowers have also been used as a dye for colouring. They’ve also been used in medicine as a diuretic and to treat liver and kidney problems and other infections.
Not only do dandelions smell perfumed and slightly citrussy, lending them wonderfully to using in our sparkling wine, but they are also rich in vitamin A, C and D, as well as calcium and iron. And when we pick them in the glorious spring sunshine, we get a healthy dose of vitamin D from the sun rays too.
So, next time you are out in your garden about to eradicate a dandelion plant, consider leaving it for both yourself and the wildlife to enjoy. There are so many benefits to this glorious harbinger of spring.
As the golden flowers dance in the warm breeze, reflected in the sky by a warm golden orb, it will fill you with a warm, golden moment of joy, akin to Wordsworth coming across a host of golden daffodils. This is a golden opportunity to welcome in a new golden age, the age of the dandelion.
There is a popular saying around here, "When gorse is out of blossom, kissing is out of fashion". The good news is that gorse is in flower for most months of the year, taking a short break in summer. Which is a relief if you firstly, like kissing, and secondly like using the flowers to make sparkling gorse wine.
Our sparkling gorse wine is part of our 'Rewilding' range of drinks, where we forage for ingredients found in the surrounding Devon countryside, and use it to make our drinks.
We picked this gorse in the most amazing location. It is on the cliff tops, above a hidden beach near our house in South Devon. There is a tiny, secret path (an old smuggler track) obscured by blackthorn, that leads off the coast path, and down the side of a cliff to a grove of gorse, and eventually the secluded, sandy beach.
Foraging from the cliff edge, we could see dolphins and seals swimming in the ocean. Diving into the sea we watched the spectacular acrobatics performed by cormorants and guillemots, while soaring above our heads was the fastest animal on the planet, a peregrine falcon. At our feet we saw lizards and glimpsed an adder.
Thinking of getting married soon? As we all know, roses have been used to symbolise and celebrate marriage and everlasting love in England for centuries. What better way to celebrate your love, then sharing a glass (or two) of sparkling rose petal wine, made entirely from Devon roses.
All our sparkling wines are made using the traditional champagne method, whereby they are fermented in the bottle, individually turned daily (riddled) in a pupitre (wine rack) for 6 week, before being disgorged and sealed with a champagne cork.
All the roses have been picked by hand from local Devon gardens, including from the gardens at Torre Abbey in Torquay, Devon. To capture the gorgeous, delicate scent, we pick the roses in full bloom, literally within a day or two of the flowers opening. We predominately use red roses, to create the reddish-pink colour of the sparkling wine, and a few pink and pale coloured ones with plenty of fragrance.
Three of our our favourite roses to use in Sparkling Rose Petal wine are....
Rose 'Darcey Bussell' is the quintessential English red rose which has deep scarlet, double blooms, almost velvety in texture with a fruity fragrance. It is a compact, shrubby rose, meaning it is easy to harvest the petals. Named after the acclaimed ballerina, who was amazingly appointed Principle of the Royal Ballet at the age of just 20.
Like Darcey, this rose provides an uplifting bounce to our Sparkling rose petal wine, and is guaranteed to keep you on your toes and put a bounce into your step. One too many sips though and you could be pirouetting across your kitchen floor.
Rose 'Cardinal de Richelieu'is a traditional 'old rose' species-type with the most intoxicating fragrance you could possibly imagine. Starting off deep red, it reflexes its petals to transform into an a ball of deep purple blooms. It is an absolute favourite of ours, whether we're admiring it in the garden, or using it to make sparkling rose petal wine. Best of all, it's arching stems are almost thornless, unlike the real, Cardinal de Richelieue the prickly and thorny character, who was First Minister to Louis XIII in 17th Century France, and featured in Alexander Dumas' Three Musketeers as the cunning and ruthless villain.
Like the cardinal, this rose adds a beguiling wickedness and decadence to our sparkling rose petal wine.
Rose 'Agatha Christie' is a delicately-scented mid-pink, climbing, double rose, named after the legendary crime writer who was born just down the road in Torquay. It is a repeat flowering-type, meaning we can pick more later in the season.
Like Agatha, a flower that adds intrigue, complexity and hidden layers of depth to our drink.
Pink Elderflower champagne
Early June is the season when we start to harvest elderflower to make our Elderflower 'Champagne'. Not just any plain elderflower though....purple elderflower! By using this slightly unusual garden cultivar, we produce a bright-pink sparkling wine, perfect for summer parties, BBQs or even weddings.
We harvest from a variety called Sambucus nigra 'Gerda', also sometimes listed as 'Black Beauty' And what a beauty it is, with dark purple foliage and pink florets that almost appear to froth out onto the leaves like the overflow from an over shaken bottle of champagne. For those interested in growing something similar, there is a purple elderflower cultivar, but with finely, cut serrated leaves known as Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace' that is just as gorgeous.
We've harvested from Torre Abbey, a public garden in Torquay, Devon, but we have also planted lots of these shrubs in our garden in Brixham, Devon to hopefully give us an endless supply.
Taking hardwood cuttings of elderflower is easy. Remove healthy 25cm lengths of young branches while the tree is dormant (between Nov and late Feb). Elderflower can be prone to making hollow, pithy stems, which should be avoided. Instead chose young fresh stems with solid wood for propagating. Cut to just below a bud at the base of the cutting. No need for hormone rooting powder/ gel. They strike easily without it. Insert the cutting about two thirds deep into a gritty, well drained compost. Keep the soil moist, but not too damp, and plant out in late spring.