Apples...on a plate

Increasingly we have looked abroad for our apples ­ to the Braeburn of New Zealand especially. But British apples have had a bumper crop and the supermarkets want to get us eating homegrown again
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The fruit that ruined Eve's reputation and damned mankind may not have been an apple, after all. Northern European painters depicted temptation as a fruit familiar to them. Apples more or less as we know them are thought to have originated in south-west Asia – they grow in abundance in Iran – and to have been introduced to France and England by the Romans. For many, an orchard of ancient apple trees is an English garden of Eden, an apple the most temptingly refreshing of fruit.

Traditional farmhouse orchards – sanctuaries of wildlife and scenes of court-ship – have given way to rows of dwarf trees, so bonsai in size as to force the pickers to reach down as much as up to strip them of their fruit. Planting apple trees means predicting the way our tastes in apples are heading. So it's out with tough-skinned traditional fruit, which don't go down well in supermarkets, and in with some of the varieties we've been introduced to from around the world.

Growers and supermarkets are constantly trying new varieties so that we'll buy British. We're keeping doctors away with apples that didn't exist half a century ago – Discovery, for example, dates back to the 1950s. Winter Wonder – a variety developed by an apple grower in Suffolk from naturally mutating Cox's Orange Pippin trees, ripens later than other apples – is picked this month and will be sold exclusively in Sainsbury's between November and the end of February.

Andrew Sharp, Marks & Spencer's senior procurement technologist for fruits, salads and vegetables, says growers will have to discontinue some varieties and grow what people want. He means bushes bearing Braeburn, an apple exported so successfully from New Zealand that English apple growers are now after a slice of the Braeburn pie. All year round it's the most popular apple. But at this time of year, as other varieties of just-picked apples from Kent, Worcestershire, Sussex and Suffolk arrive in ripe and sunset-coloured abundance, there's no reason to eat imports. Indeed, we can eat English apples from one end of the year to the next; age does not wither them the way it did before cold storage was invented.

Not all varieties keep well, however. The first of the year, Discovery, has already been and gone; Worcester Pearmain arrived in September and is at the end of its season now. It is followed by the Cox-like Early Windsor, then Cox's Orange Pippin itself, a couple of weeks behind its usual schedule. No matter; it is a bumper harvest – the apples look good ("the skin finish is the best for 25 years," according to a number of the experts), they taste wonderful and they're as big as can be.

The aromatic Cox's Orange Pippin grows best in northern Europe – many would say in England – and, still the biggest crop of all commercially grown apples, can be kept crunchy until the end of March. They have to be picked slightly immature, then kept cold in a state of suspended animation of 0C-1C. Marks & Spencer, however, is making a big thing of selling tree-ripened Cox's, which will last until Christmas. It's a risk for the growers, picking the fruit at exactly the right time, but it means that we can eat apples at their most naturally, autumnally juicy and sweet.

Royal Gala, of which there were almost no varieties 10 years ago, is now the second largest variety grown here. This year, it's been a record crop, and Sainsbury's aim is to sell only British, not imported, Gala apples. The supermarket already claims to sell more than a quarter of all UK apples. Like the just-starting-out-here Braeburn and the well-established Gala, Empire and Spartan (crisp white flesh, red skin) – contrary to their names – aren't imported and each piece of fruit comes with the irritating Union Jack sticker that marks them out as grown here. All UK fruit sold loose in supermarkets and greengrocers should carry the symbol of English Apples and Pears, the trade organisation of English growers that wants us to know we're eating homegrown apples.

Examples: Keswick Codling, Norfolk Beefing, Blenheim Pippin, Horsham Russett, Oxford Conquest, Bascombe Mystery, Crawley Reinette, Claygate Pearmain. Many of the traditional varieties are evocatively named after the county, village or garden they first came from, or sound like Georgette Heyer heroines and villains: Charles Ross, Mrs Phillimore, D'Arcy Spice, and Scarlet Staymared. There's no better time to visit Brogdale Horticultural Trust, near Faversham in Kent. The trees are losing their leaves but in the barns the boxes are full of fruit, and you can taste and buy as many as 20 types at any time. The surrounding orchards have two trees of each of 2,500 varieties, many of which bear rare fruit. Established in the 1940s, Brogdale is like a gene bank of apples, keeping alive the heritage of the fruit, as well as carrying out research, offering classes in grafting and pruning and selling trees as well as the fruit. At its apple festival this weekend, there are 500 varieties.

Brogdale Horticultural Trust, Brogdale Road, Faversham, Kent (01795 535286)

It's hard to believe Apple Day didn't exist before 1990. Now, across the country, 21 October is a highlight of the autumn calender. The day itself and the weekends around it have blossomed into a celebration of apple-related activities, championing a fruit that's at the heart of English eating, customs, cooking and folklore. Apple Day was decreed by Common Ground, an environmental and arts organisation, to encourage us to cherish the fruit that's so integral to rural culture, to appreciate old varieties and their connections with local communities, and to help conserve the old orchards that are fast disappearing, with drastic effects on the wildlife they support. This year, there are 600 events. In Ely, Cambridgeshire and Much Marcle, Herefordshire restaurants, pubs and B&Bs are backing Apple Day. Many National Trust properties have apple-related events and have apple desserts for their tearooms and restaurants. Visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

Common Ground, Gold Hill House, 21 High Street, Shaftesbury, Dorset SP7 8JE (01747 850820); www.commonground.org.uk. Send an A4 self-addressed envelope for Apple Day news and Apple Day events list

There is no artificial, waxy polish on their apples, but all year round (thanks to cold storage) there's a queue to buy Chegworth Valley apples at farmers' market stalls in London. On Wednesday, they're at Swiss Cottage, on Saturday you'll find them at Notting Hill, Wimbledon, and Twickenham farmers' markets and Borough Market, and on Sunday they're at Islington, Peckham and Blackheath.

All the fruit is unsprayed, some is organic and it's all from the Deme family's 90-acre farm, near Maidstone in Kent (telephone: 01622 859 272). Varieties include Spartan, Egremont Russett, Gala, Braeburn and Winston for £1.20 a kilo. They'll also deliver boxes of apples and juices when they're up in London after the markets.

WAITROSE IS selling rare apples from Brogdale. The store will sell 200 varieties in 64 branches between now and the end of November. Among those in the 700g punnets for £1.69 will be Ashmead Kernel, Granny Gifford, Grimes Golden, Laxton's Royalty and Yellow Bellflower.

Unusual apple varieties are also available from: Crapes Fruit Farm, Rectory Road, Aldham, Colchester, Essex CO6 3RR (01206 212375). Ring if you can't get to the barn, where 200 varieties are sold straight from the orchards. Apples sent by courier cost from £13 for 8lb.

Fresh Food Co, 326 Portobello Road, London W10 (020-8969 0351). The award-winning organic food home-delivery store has a case of assorted traditional apples for Apple Day. Weighing about 8kg, it costs £28 including delivery, 10 per cent of which price goes to Common Ground.

Charlton Orchards, Creech St Michael, Taunton, Somerset (01823 412959). Of the 30 varieties grown on a family farm, there are five ancient russets. Buy from the farm shop for 80p a kilo, or have a box of 24 apples delivered for £15.95. Juice can also be supplied by post.

Dr Joan Morgan is the country's leading pomologist and can identify any apples visitors bring to Brogdale open days. In The Book of Apples (Ebury Press, £25) she describes every apple kept in the Brogdale collection. She has tasted every one and tested their cooking qualities. The oldest date back to the 17th century, before which time it is difficult to pinpoint an apple's history.

Apple cultivation was hugely popular by the end of the 17th century. Some varieties were discovered by chance – Bramley's Seedling came out of an amateur grower's garden in Southwell, Nottinghamshire – then Victorian gardeners experimented and nurserymen bred new varieties, and commercial fruit growing began. Cox's Orange Pippin was first grown near Slough in the 19th century and became the archetypal English apple. Dr Morgan's favourite apples are the Ellison's Orange, and Edmund's Pippin.

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