For centuries, British cooks have had a habit of supplementing home-grown apples and pears with imported oranges, lemons, grapes and dried fruit. Yet, unlike most of us today, our ancestors would also have cooked native quince, medlar, crab-apples, rowan-berries, sloes, walnuts and hazelnuts. Much depended on what they could buy or pick locally and what they had managed to preserve earlier in the year.
Bryan Webb, chef-owner of the Tyddyn Llan restaurant in Llandrillo, still suffers from the same problems. "I've always cooked seasonal produce," he says, "and, since I moved here from London three years ago, I've tried to source my ingredients locally - but you quickly realise how dependent you are on good weather for a reasonable harvest. We've a Cox's Orange Pippin tree and a Williams Bon Chretien tree in the garden, which gave us two boxes of fruit this year. However, once that's finished, we'll have to buy from London."
In true British fashion, Webb preserves whatever keeps well. Early in September, he buys and freezes wild Welsh whimberries (bilberries). "They have a more intense, sweet flavour than blueberries," he says. "We use them through the winter, usually by putting them in the bottom of crème brûlé, which we serve with a whimberry sorbet." Then, in late September, he pickles local damsons to accompany Lady Llanover's recipe for salt duck (from The First Principles of Good Cookery, 1867) later in the year. Finally, in November, he turns local quince into jelly to accompany his game terrine.
Nigel Haworth, chef-owner of Northcote Manor in Lancashire, is another advocate of locally grown produce. "A few weeks ago," Haworth says, "we celebrated local apples by devising a menu that used about 13 different varieties. I'm now discovering all sorts of old varieties of pears, including lots of different Perry pears. People really shouldn't need to eat a foreign apple or pear ever again."
Medlars were once widely eaten in Britain, although they have always been considered to be an acquired taste. This is because, when eaten raw, they need to be "bletted": the medlar is picked in late October and its stem is dipped into heavily salted water to prevent the fruit from rotting. It is then stored, stalk upwards, in an apple tray in a cool place, until its flesh softens and turns brown. Nottingham, a very old but good breed of medlar, can be bought from Ken Muir's Nursery in Essex.
Surprisingly, Claire Higgins, a director at Ken Muir's, has noticed not only an increase in demand for medlar trees in the past few years, but also a greater interest in quince trees, blueberry plants, walnut trees and outdoor grape vines. Perhaps it is down to an openness to cooking fruit in new ways - quince is delicious simmered in a lamb tagine, and blueberries are gorgeous poached as a sauce for American-style pancakes. The Broadview walnut trees Higgins sells are a North-American black variety, which will fruit in half the time of a traditional English walnut. And, if the weather is bad, you can always turn the immature green nuts into pickled walnuts, just like your ancestors did.
There are even new apple breeds appearing. Higgins, for example, has fallen for a new culinary apple called Broadholme Beauty. "I think it may actually rival Bramley as a great baking apple," she says, "as it has a very thin edible skin and is very sweet, which is perfect for diabetics." Nor should one forget some of the old pear varieties, such as Beurre Hardy, which has an aromatic, juicy, white flesh hidden beneath its rough, russetted skin. Imagine being able to pick such fruit and turn it into buttery, rose-water scented pies, or lightly spiced pickle to accompany the Christmas ham and cold turkey. Lucky gardeners. s
Northcote Manor, Langho, Blackburn, Lancashire, tel: 01254 240 555, www.northcotemanor.com; Tyddyn Llan, Llandrillo, near Corwen, Denbighshire, tel: 01490 440 264, www.tyddynllan.co.uk; Ken Muir Nurseries, Weeley Heath, Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, tel: 0870 747 9111, www.kenmuir.co.uk