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

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.