Only the Brits love a Bramley

We have an illogical attachment to sour cooking apples, says Joanna Bly thman
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The British tend to be reticent about laying down culinary rules, but there is one mantra around which we appear to be united: if it is a cooking apple you are after, it has to be a Bramley.

This attachment to the Bramley is curious. We are the only apple-eating country in the world that makes a distinction between ``eating'' or ``dessert'' apples and the cooking variety. The French, the Danes, the Dutch, the Germans - fond though they are of goose with apple sauce, Apfel Torte this and Apfelstrudel that - happily use the same varieties for both purposes.

Viewed historically, it is only Britain that has developed sour varieties of apple, designed just for cooking. We have four ``cookers'': Howgate Wonder, Grenadier, Lord Derby and, of course, the Bramley, If the first three names ring no bells for you, that is another reflection of the enduring supremacy of the Bramley.

As a demonstration of their commitment to this variety of apple and its long-term future, English apples growers have come together to see that the Bramley remains for ever foremost in our affections. With additional financial backing from the European Commission, they are funding the Bramley Information Service, with an annual budget of pounds 200,000-pounds 250,000. But is the Bramley so fantastic?

Back in 1962, the food writer Elizabeth David was the first authoritative voice to blow the whistle on the Bramley. In an article in the Spectator entitled ``Big Bad Bramleys'', Mrs David wrote: ``I find them too large, too sour, too collapsible . . . There is no more chilling dish in the whole repertory of English cooking than those baked apples in their macintosh skins . . . Because of the way they disintegrate, Bramleys are of very little use for the kind of apple dishes which go wonderfully with pheasant and other game . . .''

Her point is elementary. Try cooking a Bramley for a classic tarte tatin, and the apple will have collapsed long before it has caramelised. When baked, a Bramley becomes almost explosive. For frying in wedges, to accompany black pudding or roast duck, it is disaster.

Almost any variety of ``eating'' apple will give superior

results. Generally, the sweeter the apple the better it will retain its shape. Of the more modern varieties, Braeburn, Idared, Discovery, Elstar, Jonagold or Jonagored will all perform better. Even those boring eaters - Granny Smith and Golden Delicious - taste surprisingly acceptable when cooked. And they will definitely hold their shape. Among older, more traditional apples, Egremont Russet, Blenheim Orange, Ellison's Orange, Charles Ross, Reine de Reinette and James Grieve all cook well.

And on taste? Our love of the Bramley is something of a puzzle. It is true that in a limited number of recipes, a tart flavour is often agreeable. But apart from tartness, the Bramley is signally devoid of the profusion of aromas and perfumes that gives other apples their character.

For most British tastebuds, a puree made from Bramleys will need sugar added to make it palatable. But many other varieties produce a puree that is naturally aromatic and requires no sweetening at all. Most English Bramley apple pies, one suspects, are made acceptable only because a sub

stantial quantity of refined white sugar has been added.

Put bluntly, Bramleys though tart, are relatively flavourless. This is in contrast to the more acid, but nevertheless ``eating'' apple varieties that you find on the Continent, such as the Boskoop. These have a distinct acidity, but pack more intrinsic flavour alongside.

According to the Bramley Information Service, the ``great British Bramley'', discovered in 1805, has three characteristics which make it ``the king of the cooking apples''. The first is that it contains anything from two to six times more malic acid than other varieties. The second is that it has only around three-quarters of the sugar of other ``eating'' apples. The third is that it has 20 per cent less dry matter content than most eating apples, which means that it softens (or collapses) much more easily when cooking. The information service also insists that the Bramley ``can hold its shape'' when cooked, citing tests carried out on its behalf by the Good Housekeeping Institute.

The motivation among growers for promoting Bramleys has to be that there is no foreign competition. Our eating apple market is dominated by imports, so the Bramley must seem like a salvation. But Sue Clifford of Common Ground, the group which campaigns to maintain the diversity of our apple varieties, believes growers should be educating us to experiment more and widen our palates.

The Bramley also has the benefit of fitting in well with supermarket buying requirements. It stores particularly well because of its high malic acid and low sugar content, which give it a slow metabolism. Even without modern storage methods, Bramleys picked in September and October can last until April or May, though they will have become noticeably sweeter.

But just as oranges are not the only fruit, Bramleys are not the only apples for cooking. Along with the Cox's Orange (the only other English apple to benefit from active promotion), the obsession with the Bramley needs rethinking. There are 6,000 varieties of apple in Britain, of which at least 2,000 live on in our National Collection at Brogdale in Kent. With such a glittering diversity on our doorstep, why concentrate on only two?