Granny's coming home

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The typical British attitude towards homegrown fruit, and apples in particular, could be compared to living with a cordon bleu chef and ordering pizza every night. Despite the fact that there are more than 2,000 varieties of English apple, most of us would be hard pressed to name more than one (the good old Cox, no doubt). And even though British apples are widely regarded as the best in the world, we're happy to load our trolleys with uniformly bland foreign imports.

Apple Day on 21 October is a timely reminder of what we're missing. Hundreds of events up and down the country this weekend, from apple identification sessions to tastings, cider pressing and orchard rambles, will celebrate the rich history of our "national fruit".

Sue Clifford from Common Ground, the organisation which started the event in 1990, explains the motivation behind the initiative. "We were concerned about the disappearance of orchards and wanted to bring fruit back into the national consciousness," she says. "We came across this extraordinary fact, that over the years there have been 6,000 varieties of apple. This says a lot about our ingenuity in relation to nature."

Joan Morgan, co-author of The Book of Apples, and a trustee of the Brogdale Horticultural Trust in Faversham, Kent - home to The National Apple Collection, which numbers more than 2,000 varieties - is in no doubt as to the superiority of our homegrown fruit. Over the past 20 years she claims to have tasted and annotated almost all of the world's apples. "Nowhere else is there quite such a wonderful spectrum as in England," she insists, "and nowhere else demonstrates the unique seasonal progression from the earliest apples like the Irish Peach and Discovery, to the Worcester with its lovely strawberry flavour, to the Ellison Orange with a hint of aniseed, to the very savoury James Grieve, and then the Cox with its intense, aromatic quality."

What a shame, then, that this diversity is so poorly reflected in most of our supermarkets, particularly at the moment with the harvest season in full swing. A tour around some of the main protagonists earlier this week revealed that Asda boasted six English varieties out of a total of 10; Waitrose had four out of 10, Sainsbury's had four out of 11, while Safeway carried three out of eight.

"What's so sad," according to Sue Clifford, "is that we've allowed aggressive marketing from France and very good science from New Zealand to push our apples even off the autumn shelves, which is mad."

However, she's adamant that it's not simply a case of railing against foreign imports. "Our argument isn't at all a xenophobic one. It's about locality, so we'd like to link with people in France and New Zealand and talk about the importance of growing and eating apples locally, in their season, and keeping the culture of that place well and truly alive."

Paul Smith from Brogdale, reveals that one in 10 of those who fill in questionnaires when they visit the orchards ask "Why can't we get these apples in the shops?" He is in no doubt as to the reason. "It's far easier for the supermarkets to get 500 tons from one source than go around to a lot of suppliers getting smaller amounts from each."

Sue Clifford from Common Ground reckons that we must all, as consumers, accept some responsibility. "We've tried not to say that it's the European Community's fault or the supermarkets' fault as we're all implicated. If we're buying these things, then we're all party to the process. We should say to the retailers, 'Where are the varieties you had last year?, Where are all those mentioned in your newspaper ads?' "

And persistence can reap rewards. Asda, for example, has for the first time this year, installed an English Apple and Pear Buyer at Wakeley Distribution in Rainham Kent from where he is able to access local suppliers and growers at first hand. Meanwhile, Brogdale is currently negotiating with one of the big retailers in an effort to make the fruits of its orchards more widely available.

"In theory, the only months that we can't eat our own apples are May, June and half of July," says Sue Clifford. "The rest of the year, you're either picking them and eating them straight from the tree, and right through until late April and early May you're eating the last of the late picking."

Who knows, in the not too distant future, our own Granny Giffard could be giving Granny Smith a run for her money.

Apple Day events around the country today, Sun. Details from Common Ground, (0171-379 3109)

Brogdale Horticultural Trust, Faversham, Kent (01795 535286)

Mail order English apples from: Crapes Farm, Aldham, nr Colchester, Essex and Charlton Orchards, Creech St Michael, Somerset

Spartan:

Expert: Perfumed, flavour like a strawberry and melon cross. Sweet, with some acidity, juicy and crisp.

Our testers: "Crisp and sweet - slightly tart edge"; "Lovely and fresh"; "Supermarket sweet - dreary"

Egremont Russet:

Expert: Very distinctive flavour. Almost smoky tannic quality develops after keeping.

Our testers: "Delicious, slightly fizzy with a woody texture. Perfect with cheese"; "Firm, slightly spicy, tart and a good texture"; "Yuck."

Red Pippin

Expert: Has a cox-like flavour; sweet but with plenty of balancing acidity.

Our testers: "Fresh and sharp with a subtle flavour"; "Bit floral, but nice and crunchy"; "Flavour of an English summer".

Royal Gala

Expert: Perfumed, honeyed and juicy.

Our testers: "Reassuringly middle of the road, but very pleasant and juicy"; "Excellent for applejuice".

Elstar

Expert: Intensely flavoured, honeyed, sweet, crisp juicy flesh. Widely available now but don't really come into their prime until November - may be too tart for some.

Our testers: "Suitably tart, tastiest of all"; "Too floury in texture"; "Lack of texture and slight sourness disappointing."

Cox's Orange Pippin

Expert: Delicious. Variously described as spicy, honeyed, nutty and pear- like. A subtle blend of great complexity.

Our testers: "Flesh too floury"; "Nice and tart, but too soft"; "Nutty, good with cheese."

The Expert: Joan Morgan, author of The Book of Apples and probably the only person alive to have tasted and annotated almost every one of the world's apple varieties.

The apples: Andy Willis, Asda's English apple buyer made a selection from Asda's orchards in Kent. For more information about Asda's English apple week, call 0500-100055

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