The wild, remote landscapes of Yorkshire have attracted monastic houses since the early Middle Ages, and over the centuries the monks worked the land very successfully, in many cases, creating large agricultural estates that supported their monasteries and provided an income.
However, it wasn’t until 1802 that a small community of Benedictine monks was established in Ampleforth due to long-standing connections with the area, soon establishing a school and college. Among their successful enterprises was the planting of apple trees which have developed over the years into what is today the UK’s most northerly commercial orchard.
The orchards cover more than two hectares, with over 2,000 trees and more than 40 varieties of apples, including Ashmead’s Kernal, Vista Bella, Beauty of Bath and Ribston Pippin, the oldest type of apple grown at Ampleforth which originates from a tree grown locally at Ribston Hall in the 17th century. Today the day-to-day running of the orchards and cider press is undertaken by employees of the Ampleforth estate but the monks still take an active interest in what the abbey produces.
Sue and Aidan Nelson, founders of Yorkshire Food Finder, have long known about Ampleforth’s orchards and their cider-making prowess, and were keen to include them on one of their innovative culinary food trails. However, it was Andrew Pern, chef-patron of the Star Inn at Harome, who encouraged them to visit the Abbey and taste for themselves...
“As someone who's been using local produce for years – and well before it became foodie-fashionable – Andrew immediately saw the value in what we wanted to do,” Sue recalls, “and so he essentially gave us carte blanche access to his suppliers' contacts book! It was Andrew's initial support that gave us the passport into some of Yorkshire's best producers – quality chefs will only use the best of what's on offer because not to do so clearly affects their culinary reputation. And once other chefs learned about what we were doing with Andrew's support, many more jumped on the bandwagon, too.”
Apart from the quality of Ampleforth's ciders and liqueurs, what Sue loves about the place is the history behind it. “The monastic tradition of apple growing and cider-making here is testament to Ampleforth's self-sufficiency and Benedictine heritage. The setting of the abbey – and its orchards – shows off a wonderful and tranquil part of North Yorkshire that is an official area of outstanding natural beauty in itself,” adds Sue. “Quite right too!”
At the Abbey, visitors are taken on a detailed guided tour around the orchard and then given the opportunity to see the cider-making process, including the apple pressing in the cider mill. After this comes the chance to sample the famous Ampleforth Cider, Ampleforth Cider Brandy, Ampleforth Amber – a blend of cider brandy and freshly squeezed apples – and Ampleforth Sloe and Damson gins. The abbey has just started producing its own beer and visitors will be able to taste that, too.