CRUNCH TIME: How an abandoned allotment could reignite Britain’s ancient love for eccentric apples
Do you fancy a Peasgood Nonsuch, a Catshead or a Decio? How about a Pitmaston Pineapple, or maybe a Blenheim Orange and an Ashmead’s Kernel?
The joys of our old English apples are many but one, surely, is their delightfully eccentric names.
Centuries of selective breeding gave us thousands of varieties, each with its own personality. Sadly, however, scanning the shelves of my local supermarket, they are nowhere to be seen.
When asked to name an apple, a great number of us will say Braeburn, a long shelf life apple bred in New Zealand in 1952 that now dominates the British market. Personally, I find it tasteless when compared to our old varieties.
Other typical supermarket apples include the Granny Smith and the French-bred Golden Delicious. Indeed, celebrity chef and orchardist Raymond Blanc once remarked: ‘The Golden Delicious single-handedly murdered the British orchard… as a Frenchman, I feel guilty.’
An orchard at historic Cliveden House.
The joys of our old English apples are many but one, surely, is their delightfully eccentric names
In the past half century, around two-thirds of British orchards have disappeared but a discovery last year, which has recently come to light, has sparked excitement among apple enthusiasts.
In an abandoned allotment in Coventry, two women researchers chanced upon ten blossoming apple trees. Curious whether they were so-called heritage apples, they took cuttings and returned in September to collect the ripened fruit. It turned out they were.
The trees, all at least 50 years old, had heritage strains such as Rival, American Mother and the Laxton’s Superb. To the researchers’ delight, they have since grown 53 saplings, using cuttings from the fully grown trees that they think were planted before the advent of modern cultivation techniques that have done so much to limit variety.
There are now plans to start a community-run tree nursery to help preserve the rare specimens. It is thanks to British efforts that the world of apples is so diverse.
Of the 3,000 apple types known to have been created, 2,200 are still grown in the UK. Most are largely invisible, tucked away in gardens and private orchards.
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Supermarket bosses ignore them as a commercial proposition, on the basis that shoppers will mistake their often unusual appearance for imperfection.
It is easy, too, to misjudge their arresting flavours because we are so used to ultra-sweet varieties.
That’s a pity because, just as these wonderful apple types have intriguing names, they also have their stories. All the apple varieties we have are descended from wild crab apples; small, sour fruits from the Malus pumila tree that originated in Northern Europe. The visible quirks and flavour notes of apple breeds are fascinating.
Some seem too sweet when ripe but will also have counter-balancing acidity, varying quantities of juice and textures that swing between crunchy and dense. Bite into one and the juice will drip off your chin, another will be drier but deliver tangs of exotic fruit. Some are perfect for eating raw with cheese, others ideal for baking.
Many have extraordinary legends attached. The Bloody Ploughman is named after a labourer shot dead by a gamekeeper for stealing apples from the Megginch estate, near Perth in Scotland. When his body was returned to his wife, she found dark red apples in his pockets and threw them on her compost heap. The seedlings that took root became the tree now known as the Bloody Ploughman.
Named after hamlets, dukes, vicars and doctors, even anniversaries, Britain’s heritage apples tell us much about ancient times in the countryside: where or who was Hormead, Tydeman, Ellisons, the Reverend W Wilkes, the Duchess of Oldenburg or Arthur Turner?
Often apple names refer to royalty: Orleans Reinette, Edward II, Lane’s Prince Albert, for example.
Centuries of selective breeding gave us thousands of varieties, each with its own personality. Sadly, however, scanning the shelves of my local supermarket, they are nowhere to be seen
And there’s Newton’s Wonder, not as I thought named after Sir Isaac Newton’s moment of revelation but after the village of King’s Newton in Derbyshire where a sapling was discovered growing in the thatch of the roof of the local pub.
The appearance of such fruits can be disconcerting when compared with the bland perfection of many of today’s popular varieties. Some are very small, others can be peculiarly ribbed or squat – I am on the hunt for a Pig’s Nose Pippin, with a flat top like a porker’s snout.
Some of the most delicious apples are the most challenging to the eye. Decio is no oil painting but eat it and you taste an apple beloved of the Romans.
When it comes to cooking, the consensus is the only apple to make sauce or a crumble with would be a Bramley. But there are dozens of other ‘cookers’. Look out for Dumelow’s Seedling, Lane’s Prince Albert and Peasgood Nonsuch.
Anyone unsure of which to use in tarts, pies, or for baking and frying can learn from Raymond Blanc. His ‘guilt’ prompted him to plant a 2,500-tree orchard and he wrote a book on the subject.
Our heritage apples possess flavours of such complexity they can be reasonably compared to wine grapes. And yet, supermarkets insist on pursuing a policy of ‘mono-flavour’. Of the 121,000 tons of apples sold by supermarkets in 2018, 59,000 tons were Gala (and 28,000 tons Braeburn).
This ode to the wonders of the rarer apple may sound like snobbery from an arch food critic but apples are a popular, healthy food and if the majority of shoppers like their apples syrupy sweet, then one type is better than none.
But those who love Britain’s heritage apples will be hoping for more discoveries like that in Coventry.
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