"Lo! sweeten'd with the summer light, The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow, Drops in a silent autumn night." Alfred Lord Tennyson, like many of his fellow thinkers and poets, knew full well the prodigious, quiet joys of the British autumn. The drawing-in of the nights; the sharpening of the air; the haze of early mornings as the fog lifts, heavily, over a russet-coloured countryside.
Another indisputable yet oft-underestimated seasonal pleasure that did not escape his notice was, of course, a good deal more earthy and immediately satisfying to those with a rather less romantic temperament. Alongside the mists and mellow fruitfulness, usually in the first weeks of October, comes one of the foremost joys of the agricultural calendar: the arrival of the beleaguered but quintessentially English apple harvest.
This year, nature's much-anticipated annual feast has come early, thanks, in the main, to the dismal summer of damp, unremitting gloom we have just had the misfortune to go through. Small recompense, you may think. But that's not all – 2007's harvest promises to be bigger- much bigger – than any in living memory. The crop is up a magnificent 10 per cent on last year – and it isn't over yet.
For most of us, this is cheering news, conjuring up images of steaming fruit pies and jugs of warm cider as we curse the cold weather and premature twilights. For those in the know, however, it means much more: a much-needed, long sought-after reminder that England's apple trees are performing better than ever- and that, after years of disparagement, their plucky, punchy, sweet-yet-tangy flavoured fruit are well and truly back on top.
It was not always so, especially in the last half of the 20th century. While farmers and pickers are now rejoicing, giving thanks to a highly unusual summer climate that has destroyed far more than it created, the last few decades have borne witness to an international battle of the orchards in which England's finest lost out to their mass-produced rivals across the world. Despite British varieties enjoying an ideal temperate environment for the fruit, and a distinctive flavour considered second-to-none, fickle buyers were lured by the low prices and cosmetic appeal of foreign varieties, in particular the bland-tasting golden delicious so championed by the French. With the added burden of hotter summers making crops less reliable, it all looked bleak for the English apple, ambivalent muse of Sir Isaac Newton, Laurie Lee and – perhaps to rather less creative effect – John Major in his reflections on "Britishness".
But, as the industry took more of a battering and as experts began to wonder whether it was all over, the future started to look rosier for the apple. The green, eco-living movement, with its enthusiasm for home-grown produce and concerns over food miles, offered a brighter future for fruit growers and sparked a vociferous clamouring for English fruit. Demand has grown exponentially, and this summer saw the crowning triumph. In a moment of impeccable timing, the summer's unprecedented rainfall allowed commercial interest to reach dizzying heights at the same moment as productivity.
Clive Baxter, whose family firm JL Baxter and Sons runs three fruit farms in Kent, believes this year looks set to be the best apple crop he has ever seen. "The rain has been fantastic for the apples, and the day we started picking the rain stopped, it was perfect. Assuming it carries on like this, it will be the best apple harvest we've ever had." English Apples and Pears Ltd chief executive, Adrian Barlow agrees. "Many crops have suffered badly this year, but for apples the rain has been pretty good news. We got record crops of gala and braeburns this year."
More than 25,000 tonnes of Gala apples have already been harvested from English trees, and Mr Barlow predicts that this has the potential to grow to 33,000 tonnes in future seasons. A renewed interest in cooking apples has led to sales of the British-only Bramley going through the roof, buoyed by the renaissance in cider. The oddly-shaped, full-flavoured Braeburn has seen similar success, with an expected crop of 7,000 tonnes this year that may also expand in the coming years. "The demand is there now for braeburns, and in five years time, we could well be producing 20,000 tonnes", says Barlow. He believes that, had it not been for a run of summer hail storms which wrought significant damage on the apple crop in some regions, the already vast harvest could have been up to 12 per cent greater.
Last year the rise in native produce also saw the first English commercial crop of golden delicious for 20 years. This was a landmark in the industry, since the apple has traditionally imported from France, Italy and South Africa. Even the Americans lost out to our indigenous fruit this year, as they fall foul of warmer weather. While England revelled in their bountiful harvest, across the pond, growers lamented the result of an abnormally warm July. America's apple crop, which includes Fujis and red delicious, was down three per cent this year.
According to Mr Baxter, the kudos of stocking home-grown produce has even lured supermarkets that have traditionally championed cheaper varieties.
"Last year there was an interest in local produce from supermarkets who were trading quite heavily on the idea," says the Kent farmer. "Other retailers who have not supported us in the past have also followed suit. Chains such as Morrisons and Asda, who did not make the effort last year are now seeking out home-grown apples."
It is not all good news, however. We might have fought off the threat from traditional rivals but another more formidable one could be just around the corner. As China invests more in growing English varieties of apples, such as the braeburn, the East is likely to pose the type of commercial threat that New Zealand and France have presented in the past.
But that is next autumn's problem. For now, for one blissful, fruitful year, the English apple's time has come. And its success tastes very sweet indeed.
English apples: the pick of the bunch
Grown across Britain and available throughout the year, the green Bramley is regarded as the best cooking apple because of its fine, fluffy texture after baking – but with an unmistakable crunch. The variety was reportedly first grown in a cottage garden in Southwell from a pip of unknown origin, between 1809 and 1813, on a tree that still stands today. Its distinct taste is retained during cooking. The Bramley represents more than 95 per cent of apples sold for home cooking.
The classic Cox – said by the English Apples and Pears trade association to be the finest of all English apples to eat – is available from mid-September to early April and is respected for its taste and aroma. The Cox represents about 60 per cent of the total volume of the commercial production of eating apples grown in this country.
The Cox dates from about 1825 and grew from a Ribston Pippin at Colnbrook Lawn, near Slough by Richard Cox, a retired brewer from Bermondsey. In 1850 the variety Cox's Orange Pippin, was introduced, after which a number of productions were introduced, the most modern is the Queen Cox, known to be difficult to grow.
Available from late September until early March and representing about 20 per cent of the apple market, the sweet, orangey-yellow Gala is one of the newer British apples, first planted in commercial levels during the 1980s. The Gala grew from a cross between the Golden Delicious – which, along with the Granny Smith is wrongly believed by some to be of British origin – and Kidd's Orange Red variety. It was raised by J.H.Kidd of Wairarapa. From that, the Royal Gala emerged. Galas are believed by their fans to be among the most juicy of the various British apple varieties.
Perhaps the most distinctive English apple, available from late September until early February, the Egremont Russet is relatively brown in colour with a cream flesh. The origins of this most important russet are not known, but was first recorded in 1872. It was given the RHS Award of Merit in 1980, and makes up about 6 per cent of the total UK eating market.
This early variety – a cooking apple like the Bramley – is available from late July to the end of August. It is used by some farmers in the country but is less of a commercial apple, and is only easily available in the market stalls.
This rare apple, which is used specifically for cider, is found throughout the year in Herefordshire and Kent.
Another distinctive, rare apple, which is reddish in appearance and comes armed with a pleasing "strawberry" taste.