Red or green, have we ever seen a better apple crop?

Christopher Hirst toasts the summer's unpredictable weather that has yielded a delicious harvest of fruit
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Driving through the countryside at this time of year, you can glimpse tempting rosy spheres at every turn.

You see them bowing down the dwarf trees that now populate commercial orchards. They dangle exasperatingly out of reach over ancient brick walls. On espaliered branches, they embellish the walls of rural cottages like Christmas baubles. I cannot be alone in considering the scrumping potential of such autumnal abundance. If I could only get at them – and no one happened to be looking, surely one wouldn't be missed?

For apple connoisseurs, it is an annual joy to follow the harvest from early varieties like Discovery and Worcester Pearmain to resilient keeping apples such as Cox's Orange Pippin and Egremont Russet. This is even more pleasurable this year due to the exceptional sweetness of the fruit. Oddly enough, this was prompted by the overcast, chilly weather in May. The light level at that time influences the eventual size of an apple. In effect, the tree decides how big its fruit is going to be.

Grim weather meant smaller fruit, but fine, sunny days in June and July converted the starch in apples to sugar. Since the fruit had a smaller number of cells than normal, the sugar was concentrated. The delectable displays look even more tempting than normal due to cool nights in August intensifying their rosy blush. You can tell when an apple is ripe because it parts easily from the branch. In my experience, the traditional test of shaking an apple to see if the pips rattle is only intermittently effective.

Contrary to some reports, this is not a bumper year for apples in terms of tonnage. "We were generally spared the late frosts that damage pollinated fruitlets," explained Adrian Barlow, chief executive of English Apples and Pears Ltd, which promotes the fruits for 400 growers. "But the cold spring meant that pollination was only moderate because insect movement was not as good as it might have been. The eating quality this year is not the best since 1970, but it is probably as good as you'll find in any seven-year period."

David Knight, an apple grower with 20,000 trees on 40 acres near Pembury, Kent, agrees that 2010 will probably be "a good year but not a record year". He is not exactly distraught at the lack of a glut. "We don't want a massive harvest because the price plummets. The cost to the grower of picking, transportation and marketing is huge. The people further down the chain always make money but it's the grower who pays for the two-for-one offers. We hope retailers will be sensible this year. The grower gets around £1.50 per kilo – not a lot for 10 apples – so a drop of 10p per kilo makes a lot of difference."

Judging by my local Waitrose, where prices range from 27p for a Braeburn to 33p for a Gala and 38p for a new variety called Jazz, someone is doing quite nicely. Gala is the fastest growing variety in Britain with 34,000 tons sold last year. This puts it virtually on a par with the long-standing favourite Cox's Orange Pippin. In its dazzling coat of crimson and pale gold, Gala has a deeply sweet but somewhat one-dimensional flavour. Braeburn has a good crunch with a degree or two less sweetness. Jazz, a cross between Gala and Braeburn that is planned to sell 1.5m boxes in Britain next year, strangely combines sweetness, crispness and profound juiciness. Munching one reminded me of eating dessert grapes. All these bestsellers were in tip-top nick and looked gorgeous but, as tends to be the case with humanity's most pulchritudinous individuals, they were somewhat lacking in character.

I suppose everyone who grows apples thinks theirs have the edge. My own orchard, which runs to one tree, consists of Discovery. A less gaudy version of Gala in appearance, its sweet flavour is mitigated by a drop of acid. Sometimes the flesh has a pink tinge and some people detect a hint of strawberry or raspberry, although I haven't noticed it personally. The main drawback with this excellent early apple is that it doesn't keep. A couple of weeks after picking, the skin puckers and the flesh turns pulpy. This causes me great anguish since my appetite is restricted to one or at most two a day. The fact that apples induce satiation without calories makes them excellent for diets.

With a skin of stylish khaki suede, the nutty-flavoured Egremont Russet is a particularly satisfying apple and a magnificent partner for cheese. Selling around 4,500 tons a year, the russet has retained a market among apple aficionados. The genial rustics of Oxfordshire swear by Blenheim Orange, a hybrid found growing against a dry-stone wall surrounding Blenheim Palace around 1740. Immensely popular in the 19th century, it is praised in Christopher Stocks' book Forgotten Fruit as "possibly the only apple whose taste has been described as addictive". Unfortunately, this marvel is easily damaged in transit.

The homely British apple boasts an unexpectedly exotic lineage. Originating as a small, bitter fruit in the forests of Kazakhstan, at least 7,500 apple cultivars have been developed. The Romans, who brought the fruit to Britain, had at least 20 different varieties, including Epirotic from Albania, Syrian Red and the red Appian, which smelled of quinces. With a temperate climate ideally suited to the fruit, the British have developed 2,300 varieties of cooking and dessert apples. The Costard, a sharpish cooker, so dominated the medieval period that fruit sellers were known as costermongers. The apple's great blossoming came with the gardeners of stately homes and later with horticultural obsessives, both amateur and commercial.

The Ribston Pippin, the best-selling predecessor to the Cox, was grown from a French pip at Ribston Hall, Knaresborough, Yorkshire, in the 17th century. The McIntosh, whose name was appropriated by Apple computers, was first propagated in Ontario around 1835. Cox's Orange Pippin was raised by retired brewer Richard Cox in Slough in 1825. The dominant cooker Bramley's Seedling was raised by Mary Anna Brailsford in Southwell, Notts, in 1813, but its name comes from the butcher who took over her cottage. The apple that prompted Newton's law of gravitation was a variety called Flower of Kent. According to The New Book of Apples it "cooks to sweet, delicately flavoured purée". Raised in Grantham in the 1850s, Peagood's Nonsuch was described by the RHS as "one of the most handsome apples in cultivation". The wonderful proliferation of varieties includes Cats-head, Dog's Snout, Kentish Fillbasket, Slack ma Girdle, Scotch Dumpling and Neild's Drooper.

The Apple Source Book by Sue Clifford and Angela King is an ardent plea for sustaining the wonderful variety of British apples: "To find the Blenheim Orange in Woodstock, the Galloway Pippin in the Borders presents more than a wider palette: it can etch a philosophy of living well with the world." But this admirable argument does not necessarily mesh with commercial imperatives. "Many of the older varieties have wonderful names," says Adrian Barlow, "but generally they present significant difficulties and have to be sold at exorbitantly high prices."

He cites the example of Ashmead's Kernel, raised in the 18th century by William Ashmead, Clerk of Gloucester. "It's got a wonderful flavour, reminiscent of a russet but the skin is green. The insuperable problem is that it will only produce a crop every three years. With the best will in the world, no one would plant it for commercial purposes." Though Barlow adores the Cox, which he describes as "the finest tasting apple in the world, with a wonderful balance of sugars and acids, honeyed aroma and complexity of flavour", he notes that it is prone to disease and often has a browning of the skin that puts off consumers. "A good grower will get 50 tonnes per hectare with Gala but only 35 tonnes with Cox."

A sweet, juicy apple has powerful appeal, especially to the young. It has to compete against chocolate bars and other corrosive confectionery. But it would be a shame not to enjoy the astonishing variety of tastes that generations of horticulturalists have evolved. Fortunately, a number of farms have come to specialise in rare apples. This is the perfect time to seek out apples from the "rich, aromatic, nutty" Adams's Pearman to William Crump ("intense, rich, sweet with pineapple acidity"). Happy crunching.

The Varieties

Jazz

Gala/Braeburn cross that retains Gala's gaudy coat and juice with a fraction less sugar.

Ribston Pippin

Intense, rich, long-lasting flavour with more acid bite than Cox.

Ashmead's Kernel

Distinctive sweet-sour flavour described as "reminiscent of acid drops".

Royal Gala

Sweet and juicy, almost grape-like. May soon edge out Cox as UK's No.1 apple.

Cox's Orange Pippin

Rich, complex, delicious combination of honey, spice and nuts.

Egremont Russet

Classic connoisseur's apple, dryish with highly distinctive nutty flavour.

Blenheim Orange

Described as "addictive", crumbly flesh is sweet with a hint of nuts.

Discovery

Sweet with a hint of acid; some detect strawberries in pink-tinged flesh.

Nonpareil Ancient

French variety with sweet-sour flavour that has been compared to acid drops.

...not forgetting cooking apples

If a fresh British apple is a crunchy nonpareil, there is much to be said for the cooked version. I feel a deep kinship with the 18th-century admiral who would start crying if he learnt there was no apple pie to finish dinner.

For my tastes, a traditional pie, with melting chunks of Bramley encased by shortcrust floor, walls and roof, is preferable to the more fashionable crumble, but I am tempted by a variation in Nigel Slater's book Tender Volume II. This involves caramelising "plump chunks" of apple by frying briskly in butter before covering with a "crust of mixed texture".

Angela Allison of Yorkshire Orchards says that a cooking apple called Reverend Wilks "makes a gorgeous crumble and it's so sweet that it doesn't require sugar".

A fast version of French apple tart can be made by rolling out a rectangle of instant puff pastry and incising lines half an inch from each edge (don't cut all the way through). Core and slice a couple of dessert apples such as Cox and lay the slices in overlapping rows. Sprinkle with sugar. When the tart is baked to a crisp brown, the margin should form a raised border around the fruit.

Though many cannot imagine roast pork unaccompanied by the tangy slurry of apple sauce made from Bramleys, I prefer slices of dessert apples gently fried in butter until slightly caramelised.

The favourite dish of Father Rainer Verborg, who tends the 70 apple varieties grown at Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire, is a Silesian speciality called Heaven & Hell. "Basically a mash of potato and apple with caramelised onion on top that accompanies fried black pudding." He specifies a soft black pudding like the French boudin noir. "You could make it yourself if you're lucky enough to kill your own pig."

Pick of the crop

*Yorkshire Orchards at Wilberfoss, near York, which grows 200 different types, has an Apple Weekend on 23-24 October.

*Perry Court Farm near Ashford in Kent, which has over 100 varieties, is holding an Apple Festival on 16-17 October.

*Brogdale Farm near Faversham in Kent, which holds the National Fruit Collection, is holding an Apple Festival on 23-24 October.

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