To be usurped by one's grandson is a historical rarity, as the Byzantine Emperor John V Palaiologos, were he alive today, would testify. Yet that most ignominious of clubs, of which the 14th century Greek in the only notable member, now boasts a new recruit. The hundred year reign of the Cox's orange pippin as the nation's favourite apple, has been brought to an end by an upstart descendant from New Zealand.
More than 22,000 tons of Gala apples, first imported to the UK from New Zealand in the 1980s, were sold in Britain's supermarkets last season. In comparison, 21,600 tons of Cox's were sold, figures from trade body English Apples and Pears, published by The Grocer magazine, show.
That the Cox's orange pippin is the tastier, more complex and superior apple is widely agreed. But the Gala – a cross between the Golden Delicious and the Kidd's Orange Red, itself a cross of the Cox's orange pippin and the Red Delicious – is easier to store, has a higher yield and is available all year round. It is these factors, rather than taste, that are behind its success.
"The Cox is a better tasting apple and that still stands," said Mike Austin, a guide at Brogdale Farm in Kent, home to the National Fruit Collection, one of the largest collections of fruit trees and plants in the world. "But commercially speaking Gala has taken over. The Cox's season is November, December and January. When people buy Cox's in March and April they are disappointed by the flavour – they've been picked unripe and kept in cold storage. They haven't had been allowed to develop their full flavour."
That the Cox no longer reigns supreme is cause for considerable glumness for English apple aficionados: the tangy apple, more so than any other home-grown produce, is English to the core.
Its taste is a result of that other national talking point – the English weather. "Cox's orange pippin will only really grow successfully in the UK. You need our cool temperate climates; dodgy summers, mild winters," said Richard Borrie, the man behind the world's biggest apple growing information website, orangepippin.com (ironically enough).
"Lots of Americans ask me how to grow the orange pippin, but they can't: it's too hot. It's an English apple. It loves our miserable weather. Gala will grow in any climate; the UK as well as warmer areas – France, Italy, South Africa, Chile, even parts of the US. It will grow successfully in a very wide range of climates. It's very productive, and easy to grow. It's surprising really, that the orange pippin has held on for so long."
But the orange pippin's decline may also owe something to the rise of a new generation of taste buds. "It's a generational thing," said Mike Austin. "The older person will like the tangy flavour of the Cox. The younger generation prefer the crunchy, juicy, less tangy apple. It's what they've been brought up on. They haven't really had experience of tasting the more sophisticated Cox. It is sad because the Cox is the best tasting of all the apples. Not everyone likes it but it has that nice tangy flavour and aroma. Public tastes have changed."
Gill Smith, from Waitrose, agrees.
"It's no surprise that the Gala has replaced the Cox in the No 1 slot, as British customers have developed a taste for sweet crunchy apples, rather than softer aromatic apples. While the Cox will always have a loyal following, it has been overtaken by both the Gala and the Braeburn among our customers," she said.
"The Jazz apple – another sweet and crunchy variety – is also in demand and is currently seeing the fastest growth of all. At our own orchards at the Waitrose Farm in Leckford, Hampshire, we've very much geared our plantings around customers' changing tastes in apples. We've planted thousands of Gala, Braeburn and Jazz, in addition to the familiar Cox."
These veritable youngsters it seems are no respecters of history, of which the Cox's is unmatched. In the 1820s Richard Cox, a wealthy brewer from Bermondsey retired to the country to pursue his hobby of horticulture. At "The Lawns", the name of his substantial Georgian house, Cox took a Ribston pippin, pollinated it with a Blenheim orange, and waited for a decade, as a minor miracle slowly unfolded in his back garden. "When perfectly ripe, [it is] deliciously sweet and enticing, with rich, intense, aromatic flavour," notes Joan Morgan, the great authority on the English apple, describing the Cox in The New Book of Apples. "Spicy, honeyed, nutty, pear-like... subtle blend of great complexity..."
A dignified history undoubtedly, but the apple is no stranger to humiliation. Now, "The Lawns" have been subsumed by Slough, and on its site sits a Seventies block of flats, still bearing its name. The gardens are a carpet of asphalt on the roaring Heathrow flight path.
The new Generation
An excellent strong flavour that puts it ahead of many old classic varieties. A pronounced pear-drop sweetness and very little acidity – a characteristic that can lead to blandness.
A dry and fairly soft apple with a noticeable hint of bananas and a very attractive, old-fashioned appearance.
* Pink Lady
The flavour is equal to the best modern varieties, but many prefer a blander taste. Attractive and deservedly popular.
Right up there with the old classic apple varieties when it comes to flavour. Delicate, with a less pronounced flavour and lighter flesh.
The flesh is fairly dense, cream-coloured, and not particularly juicy. The flavour is very acceptable – a hint of pear-drop, neither too sweet nor too sharp. (Source: Orangepippin.com)