Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: A celebration of the English apple

A A A

Why might one feel passionate about English apples, but not about English green beans? For if you examine the proposition, is it not the case that Cox's Orange Pippins excite enthusiasm in many people when even the juiciest and most flavoursome English runner bean is unlikely to do so, although they are both in essence the same thing, namely seed pods?

Say what you like; I think it's a mystery. There is something about apples and their tastes which takes them beyond the mundanity of horticulture and infuses them with the mystery which only the natural world can provide, the mystery of the smell of rain or the sound of a river or the colours of the evening sky, all of which have an element of the unknowable about them, almost of the infinite, which is why they fascinate and linger in the mind. It's not just fruit as opposed to vegetables, either. Pineapples are pineapples; coconuts are coconuts; even peaches and strawberries are only peaches and strawberries. But apples are a myriad of things.

There are thought to be about 7,000 named varieties of apple in existence, about 2,000 of which are English, and every one has a story attached to its name and a flavour of its own – the Blenheim Orange, the Egremont Russet, the Ribston Pippin, the Beauty of Bath, the Worcester Pearmain, the Bramley Seedling – somehow proving that they might have been domesticated, but they have never really been tamed, since they came out of the Tien Shan mountains in Central Asia, where apples originated, a few thousand years ago. For there's something unpredictable in their genes: prized new apple varieties suddenly appear, usually unexpectedly, through chance blending of the genomes of two established varieties in pollination (and gardeners rush to propagate them through grafting.)

There is another reason, besides their untamed variety, for apples belonging in my view more to the natural world, in their essence, than to gardening, and that is the way they are grown: in orchards. Traditional orchards of ancient trees managed with a light touch, often with sheep or cattle grazing beneath them, are wonderful wildlife reservoirs, full of insects, wild flowers, mosses, lichens and birds: in their perfect blend of the wild and the cultivated they are living symbols of how people and nature can exist in harmony.

About 50 years ago, however, English apples and English orchards both entered a severe decline which had a very obvious cause: the rise of the supermarket. The first supermarkets were not interested in variety: to take advantage of economies of scale they needed big crops of a mere handful of types, many of them imported, and gradually the old apple names disappeared from the shelves and by about 1980 had been replaced by an unholy trio: the McIntosh Red from Canada, the Granny Smith from Australia, and the Golden Delicious from France, which I personally find, respectively, dry and characterless, sour, and insipid. And as the supermarkets with their buying power imposed their restricted choice, farmers began to grub up their old orchards across the country and they everywhere disappeared: England has lost 60 per cent of its traditional orchards since 1960 (Kent alone has lost over 90 per cent).

Yet they have been saved, English apples and English orchards both; or at least, their decline has been halted. We owe this to one of our most singular pressure groups, Common Ground, the small charity founded by two environmental campaigners, Sue Clifford and Angela King, which concerns itself with a quality many people love but no one had put their finger on before: local distinctiveness. Sue and Angela decided early on to fight the increasingly bland uniformity of globalised culture and its brands, and among the causes they took up, such as regional foods, local dialects and parish customs, apples and orchards came to figure strongly.

Their masterstroke was to invent a "calendar custom" – Apple Day, which falls on 21 October. It is now so established that some people think it is medieval in origin, but it began on 21 October 1990, when Sue and Angela erected a marquee in the piazza of London's Covent Garden and brought together 100 – that's one hundred – English apple varieties for people to try. (I was there and I will never forget the aroma).

It was an instant success, this wholly invented feast day: it reignited interest across the country in our native apples and orchards, and their revival is well under way. Tesco now sells 20 varieties of English apple; traditional orchards were recognised by the Government as a priority wildlife habitat in 2007; the National Trust and Natural England run a national orchard conservation and restoration project; the People's Trust for Endangered Species has nearly completed a comprehensive nationwide orchard survey.

It's Apple Day's 20th anniversary on Thursday of next week, and there are hundreds of activities scheduled to celebrate it (some over the following weekend). I personally will be celebrating with a Cox's Orange Pippin, whose favour has been described variously as spicy, honeyed, nutty, pear-like, rich, intense, aromatic, subtle and deliciously sweet and enticing. Although the words don't really get it. I think of it as a mystery, like the smell of rain, or the sound of a river.

An apple a day in a spicy crumble or pie

A note in praise of another English variety: the Bramley seedling, which is a cooking apple. We have an old Bramley tree in our garden and this year the harvest was unprecedented, so Mrs McCarthy, God bless her, has been turning out Bramley pies and Bramley crumbles. They are sensational: the Bramley is far too acid to eat raw, but when cooked it has sweetened, yet the tang is explosive. It is the vindaloo of apples.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable