The Apple of Kilkenny’s Eye – The Highbank Orchards Story
There is a lot of history in County Kilkenny. It’s in the heritage city, the buildings, the culture and the land. It is also in the food and drink that is produced there. Highbank Orchards produces an award winning range of apple based products ranging from syrups and ciders to vodka, gin and liqueurs. The Calder-Potts own and operate Highbank and have been caring for the land since the 19th century when Rod’s great grandfather first moved to the farm from the island of Rousay in Scotland.
Robert Murison came from a family of farm managers and so he was recommended to steward for the Flood estate by his brother. At the time landlordism was coming to an end and as the estate was divided, Robert Murison took his chance and secured the area of land that is now Highbank Orchards through the land commission. Interestingly, it was Rod’s wife Julie who signed over the last cheque in the 80s. He claims it was a nuisance, “well at that stage it was because it was only half a crown a month. It would be a considerable amount of money now I’d imagine because in 1885 half a crown a month would be almost a labourer’s wage.”
With the land secure, Rod’s ancestors set about constructing the buildings that the family now live in. There are authentic nods everywhere like the order of St. Patrick: the rose, the shamrock and the thistle, carved all the way around the flower beds, the original arches and a way lane in the yard, and a meeting room called the Green Stage Room which still smells of hops as it used to be where the family dried and stored them for Guinness. Julie’s office is actually the room where the forge used to be.
Rod was actually raised in South Africa until his liberal parents decided to leave the country when Dr. Verwoerd brought about apartheid. They were travelling around Ireland in 1962 when the opportunity to buy the farm from Rod’s uncle presented itself and Rod has been there ever since. Happily married to Julie for 33 years, it is still very much a family affair and Rod hopes that will continue.
My son is thinking of coming back here. He’s an engineer, he’s very successful in England but he has a son about two and a half and his wife is just about to have another baby so they’d like their children to be brought up the same way, to have the same kind of childhood they had on the farm and all that. I hope he’ll be coming back in the next couple of years. I mean I’m 65, Julie is 60, we’re going to have to think about moving the business on. It would be a pity to let it go, you know I’d hate to see someone take a plough to all our hard work.
It has been a labour of love for Rod and Julie as they invested so much in making the farm biodynamic and organic 23 years ago. He was inspired by Rachel Carson’s book The Silent Spring which spoke of the inevitable dangers of losing our natural balance. After considering the effect of spraying on their own health and that of their children, they decided to commit to spray free farming.
Rod’s take on biodynamic farming is that spraying ruins the natural balance and harmony of the ecosystem. Even organic sprays that don’t harm a human’s health will have an impact on the biodiversity of the orchard. Spraying to eradicate one nuisance or pest will only result in getting rid of other insects and animals too. When the original pest returns, there won’t be any predators to help you get rid of them and so you enter a vicious cycle of spraying and eradicating.
Rod explains that is exactly what happens in chemical farming. Everything is wiped out and the crops are grown in a sterile environment and fed a scientific mix of nutrients and food. This doesn’t reflect traditional farming methods and Rod claims that these farmes don’t like using chemicals. “I don’t want anything I say to be taken as a criticism of farmers. They use chemicals because they are forced to. The price of food is far too low and in order to achieve this price point and put bread on the table and send their kids to school they’ve got to do it. My neighbours around here are absolutely fabulous, there’s a real spirit of meitheal here and they are very supportive of me.”
With a successful orchard that was supplying a lot of organic and biodynamic apples for Bulmers, the Calder-Potts felt the impact of the recession. They recognised that the best way to survive was to add value to their product by processing it themselves into something great. Julie remembered an experiment in the 70s where Rod extracted water from the apples. “He actually came out with a wonderful substance which we used to sell from our farm shop on the road, plainly for making poitin.”
So Julie was inspired and began experimenting with all the apples in her kitchen. She left a pot on the Aga one day as she went to answer the phone and, by accident or fate, Highbank Orchards Syrup was born. Julie puts the success of the award winning syrup down to the land where the apples are grown. “What we look at here is protecting the terroir, I think in Ireland in general we don’t talk about it, we have incredible soils here. We have amazing limestone soils which have made our racehorses famous because of the beautiful grass. It gives us tremendous fertility which is why I think most of the Norman invaders set up shop here with their castles and things.”
Julie launched the syrup at Savour Kilkenny and was blown away by the reaction of customers. This gave her the confidence to start seriously marketing it and it became known as a high quality, versatile product. Spurred on by her success, Julie began thinking about another use for all of the apples and she developed Driver’s Cider. “I’m not a drinker and when I like to buy a drink, it’s very hard to find one which doesn’t have copious quantities of sugar in it. So Driver’s Cider is a cider apple which we slightly carbonated and put in a beer bottle. It’s organic and has no sugar.”
Of course making one cider opens the flood gates and Julie says ‘an apple naturally wants to be cider’. Highbank now have three more in the portfolio. Highbank Proper Cider has absolutely nothing added to it, hence the name. It is slightly carbonated and very dry. The Highbank Medieval Cider is sweetened with honey as per times of old and is more accessible to those familiar with industrial ciders. The bottle bears an image of Julie’s daughter, representing Princess Nesta who was the last Celtic princess. Finally the Dessert Cider comes in a very thin bottle and is meant to be enjoyed in small glasses with cheese.
The production of alcohol continued with experiments in distilling. Having discovered that the polyphenol flavours of their syrup paired really well with whiskey, Rod and Julie decided to see if they could age alcohol on the syrup bitters. They built the Dodonus Distillery at the farm and from that they produce their own base alcohol from apples and age it using the syrup to create Highbank Orchard Syrup Liqueur.
The pure alcohol they cut back to 40% for their vodka and they redistill it six times over botanicals from the farm to make gin. They use plants like lavender, blackcurrant buds, coriander seed and leaf, rosemary, thyme, mint and rosehip. They also colour some of it with natural elements such as beetroot and pomegranate to create Pink Flamingo Gin for Valentine’s Day which comes in a heart shaped bottle.
A river runs underneath the distillery and its water is used for creating all the products. As a result all of the products that Highbank produce can be classified as single estate, something Julie is particularly proud of.
I think that single estate is a wonderful word and there’s wonderful yoghurts and butters and products coming out of our country at the moment and a lot of them are also single estate, in other words they are coming from the farm that is producing them. But the consumer doesn’t know that so I want to use this word a bit more to tell people that we are growing what we produce. We’re not importing anything, we’re not adding anything, we’re growing and processing it.
Spreading the message of their work is one thing but now agritourism has taken off in a huge way, Rod and Julie are embracing visitors and the chance to really show people their philosophy. “A lot of people are wanting to visit real farms to see what they are like. We have a safari train that goes throughout the farm and comes back for tastings and tours. Which is bringing in tourists as well as local people to experience our products. Then they move from us to another farm or back into Kilkenny so they actually experience rural Ireland. And I think rural Ireland is opening up to this and to our food, this culture which is really good.”
One event which is bringing more guests to Highbank is Bord Bia’s series of Blossom Walks. Visitors get a tour of the farm in peak blossom season and get to experience the orchard while raising money for local charities. Another initiative that is good for the farm is Ireland’s Ancient East, an initiative by Fáilte Ireland that celebrates the historical culture of the South East.
“That’s actually opening up the taste of our countryside that is connected to our history as well. We have one of the old original famine pots that the Quakers would have donated during the famine. People are coming to see our culture.” Julie says it is great to connect the history of Ireland with the history of its food, something that it is, and will be for a long time to come, intrinsic to Highbank.
For more on Highbank Orchards and their products visit highbankorchards.com.
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo