You have already been subjected to my thoughts on Thatchers and their surprising commitment to making and selling proper cider that’s far too good to be supped in a park with your mates. After the enthusiasm from a few of us food bloggers to come to the farm but an unsurprising lack of organisation, Thatchers instead invited us to come and see how their cider is made and sample the food at their Railway Inn Pub. Personally, I couldn’t think of a more glorious thing than traipsing around orchards in Autumn and sampling some of the South West’s finest and donned my mac and walking boots.
The wet start seemed to have come to a bit of a surprise for some of the guests but luckily we received an incredibly warm welcome from the staff at Mertyl Farm. The day was to start with a tour of the farm, discovering the process of cider manufacturing from the tree to the bottle. We marched off in the direction of the orchards, against the rain, and had the chance to see an incredible variety of apple trees being grown, mostly saved from the Apple project that was sadly closed down in 1997.
From there we watched apples being tipped into bays to start their journey through the factory. After clambering for the best spot to film around 7 tons of apples being released, we discovered the process of industrial pressing, fermenting and ageing, finishing with an up-close view of the enormous oak vats that give the cider its unique taste. I was surprised to learn the origin of these vats wasn’t 100% known but I am very pleased that such an incredible piece of history was being used today.
After our wet, windy and informative tour it was off for lunch. The Railway Inn is quite a new addition to the farm, with as much of the dilapidated original pub as possible being incorporated into the new exterior. The snug area has been sympathetically decorated to keep as much of the 100-year-old brickwork intact as possible, with deep chesterfield style armchairs and sofas, low lighting and beautiful, framed photography telling the Thatchers story from farm to orchard. The main bar too, although modern, chose to carve the history of the building and farm into the wood, a beautiful and thoughtful feature that really ties in the theme of wood, trees and history.
The dining area is wide and open with plenty of light. We were seated at a banquet style table and offered plenty of farmhouse style cider to accompany our meals. To start I opted for the duck dish, smoked duck breast served with confit duck leg and pickled pears. The dish was served cool with peppery rocket and bitter radicchio to counteract the sweetness of the pear. A fine starter.
For main I chose the guinea fowl dish, not realising that this essentially was two meals in one. Of course, this chubby blogger wasn’t in the least bit put off by this and dove in with usual enthusiasm. The main part of the fish was a breast still on the bone that with crispy skin and balanced on a bed of cavalo nero, squash puree and potatoes. The pie (I must point out, as a pie purist this was actually a casserole with a pastry top!) was rich with deep flavour, the chorizo provided tasty nuggets of chewy, spicy bits against the soft guinea fowl. Both “meals” were excellent though I would question whether such a huge portion was necessary.
Pudding came in the form of an apple sticky toffee pudding with a cider, toffee sauce. You can understand that this was the course I was most excited to try, what with being a pudding queen and all. A portion I can only really describe as a slab, of warm sponge, arrived, with a substantial helping of sauce and more served on the side. The cake itself was light and airy with soft, sweet apple pieces waiting to be discovered within. The hunk of honeycomb in the top was chewy and stuck my teeth together in the best possible way and the apple ice cream provided light relief from the farmhouse portion of sugary dessert in front of me. I couldn’t finish it and I feel like I let myself down.
With absolutely no expectations at all, The Railway Inn surprised and delighted me in every possible way. The food was fantastic, homely and generous, the sort of cooking you would expect on a farm. There was no pretention, just great ingredients and an expectation that you will leave waddling, your belt loosened a few notches.
The tour was incredibly informative and allowed us to poke our noses into every nook and cranny when it came to seeing the process of cider making and how much thought, local knowledge and respect went into every variation. Tours are offered at weekends and I would highly recommend booking yourself onto one for a real look at a Thatchers.