A hundred years ago, the English launched a crusade to save their apples from cheap and inferior imports. This time, our farmers are burning their orchards. PETER POPHAM reports on a national glory under threat
There were 3,000 commercial apple growers in England in the mid- Fifties. Now there are 800, and the slow death of England as an apple-growing country is accelerating. In recent weeks, dozens of English apple farmers have taken up offers of Common Market grants to destroy or "grub up" their orchards. Spring is greeted in the garden of England by a pall of smoke from burning Cox's Orange Pippins.

The reason farmers accept the grants is simple. Simon Hartwright, who recently grubbed up 200 acres of orchards at Grove Farms in Oxfordshire, explains: "We can't afford to produce apples as cheaply as they can in Europe. We are among the most efficient farmers in the world, but in ten years the price we get for our fruit hasn't risen at all."

The influx of Golden Delicious from southern France began in the mid- Seventies and is now augmented by imports from Greece, Italy and South America, as well as the United States and Canada. All these countries have hotter climates than Britain's and can, therefore, produce bigger yields more economically. Some are assisted by other factors, such as cheap labour or subsidies. But, as with cars, so with apples: the notion that the British consumer has a patriotic obligation to support local producers is deeply unfashionable.

In 1825, a retired brewer from Bermondsey called Richard Cox planted the pip of an apple - probably a Ribston Pippin - in his garden in Slough, and the fruit that resulted was just about the most delicious apple that anyone had ever tasted. Joan Morgan, probably the only person alive who has tasted practically every variety of apple in the world, describes it thus in her encyclopaedic Book of Apples (1993 Ebury Press): "...deliciously sweet and enticing with rich, intense aromatic flavour; deep cream flesh. Described as spicy, honeyed, nutty, pear-like, but subtle blend of great complexity."

Today, an English apple means a Cox's, in the same way that a cooker means a Bramley's. It is a very satisfactory object. It fits into the palm of the hand or the pocket. The skin is smooth and delicately scented, clear yellow flushed with an orangey-red glow, but with patches and dots of grey-brown russet. No two Cox's could possibly be identical.

It is trees bearing such fruit that are disappearing all over the Home Counties, as farmers pocket their EU bribes and retire gratefully from the fray. Up against them are the monsters produced by the age of the supermarket and the transcontinental container ship. Waxy Golden Delicious, doubly a misnomer for a fruit that is yellow in colour and often cloying in taste; Fuji, invented in Japan but now also grown in Brazil, as big as a small bomb and as tasty as wet Kleenex; and Granny Smith from New South Wales (where they opened a memorial park to her and plan a monument), acid and tasteless, with a thick, green skin.

These are the apples that rule the world, because they give the customer what he has been persuaded that he wants: something as big, plain and uniform, from September to April, as the product of an industrial process .

It is not fastidiousness that prevents English farmers from ripping out all the remaining Cox's trees and replacing them with Golden Delicious: England is simply not hot enough to grow such varieties with any success. The only types of apples we can excel at are those, like Cox's, which gain their complexity through the dryness of autumn, the cold of winter and the rains of July, and which as a result are arguably the most edible in the world.

But excellence of this sort is a curse, the toil of cultivation rewarded by the slenderest of profits. To turn it into a blessing, the grower of English apples has to become an evangelist.

Gill Franklin's farm at Mapledurham, north of Reading, is the last working orchard in Berkshire, and its profitability is marginal. In the past couple of years, she and her husband, Dennis, have thought hard about following the example of the seven other apple farmers in the area who have shut up shop in the past 15 years. But when the letter came from the Ministry of Agriculture, conveying the EU's offer to pay her to do just that, it had the opposite effect. "We got so mad at it", she says, "that we decided to plant more varieties." The 12 types they have harvested up to now will be joined this year by another 18.

These are the defiant apple farmers of England, and they would assort oddly with the returned colonials from Algeria who grow Golden Delicious in the Loire or the hatchet-faced American agri-businessmen behind the success of Gala or Empire apples. Gill was a professional mathematician, Dennis an accountant and the finance director behind Jimmy Goldsmith's grocery empire for many years. Seventeen years ago they decided to get out of London and find Gill a new job. "We thought of starting an art gallery or running a fish farm," she says. "Then one day Dennis said, `I've just seen an orchard for sale.'"

She now has the weatherbeaten eyes and apple cheeks of the born countrywoman. Her five-acre farm, called Crosslanes, is pocket-sized, and spreads from the crest of a gentle hill down into the valley a mile or two beyond the mock Tudor bungalows on the edge of Reading. Traditional farming is precarious here: a bigger farm near the town is soon to become a golf course, and another neighbour has already gone the same way. The orchards further afield in the Chilterns have been turned over to vines.

We walk down the hill through the scent of plum blossom, under an unseasonally warm sun, and near the bottom Gill points out the Ellison's Orange trees ("intense, rich, aromatic... taste of aniseed" is Joan Morgan's description) which were planted here when the orchard was created in 1948. These are trees as laymen glorify the term, with stout trunks and dense masses of branches and twigs, rising to 20 feet; but a pain to prune and pick. Further up the hill are the modern trees that have been developed in the teeth of furious competition: thin, weedy things by comparison, no taller than a man, trained to grow in a flat platform so that the fruit get maximum exposure to sunlight.

School has broken up and the Franklins' children, Sophie (12) and Roger (15), are hard at work. The scene resembles an illustration from a Ladybird book slightly updated: Roger driving a baby tractor and busy keeping the grass down, Sophie writing the names of each newly painted variety in red paint on the posts at the field's edge and Dennis tending the dwarf trees. Inquiries into how much the children get paid were evaded, but usual pickers earn £3 per hour ("better than Tesco's").

All the Franklins' produce is sold in the farm shop. Their operation is not big enough for the highly demanding supermarket trade. But, by dint of strewing their signboards around the highways and byways, advertising in the local papers, and lecturing at the WI and the like, Gill secures a steady stream of loyal and adventurous customers between August and December. The supermarkets concentrate on a handful of varieties; Gill offers as wide a choice as possible. "We always let customers taste everything," she says, which includes such grand old varieties as Egremont Russet, Blenheim Orange and Ribston Pippin.

Years of struggling to make the little orchard pay have given Gill Franklin strong views about imported fruit. Sophie says, "Mum goes up to total strangers in the supermarket and says, `Why don't you buy English apples?' I just pretend I don't know her." "I've got a bee in my bonnet about this," agrees her mother. "It's happening with everything in England. We must grow what we can in this country instead of importing it. Otherwise, we're at the mercy of other countries who can charge what they like, and the prices will rocket. You've got to motivate people into asking for English apples."

The question arises, why should this be necessary, when horticultural chauvinism seems to come so naturally to the French, the Spanish, the Italians?

A hundred and twenty years ago, English apples suffered the first assault from imports. Just as demand for fresh fruit among the middle classes was burgeoning, shiploads of apples from France, Canada and America began pouring into the shops to meet it. "Go where you will," reported a gardening journal of the 1880s, "American apples are in the shop windows. The unattractive-looking, crab-like produce of the home orchards is driven out by the cherry-bright, clear skins and good-looking proportions of the red Baldwins and Northern Spy..."

"In the face of what seemed like a tidal wave of apples," writes Joan Morgan, "enthusiasm for English apples acquired the peculiar intensity that arises from a sense of imminent loss." A "fruit crusade" was mounted, and proved a great success. Yoked to the nostalgia for a vanished rural England evoked by the Arts and Crafts movement, it helped to start a huge craze for English apples. Estate owners deserted their flower gardens, preferring to go for a tramp around their fruit room. The merits of particular varieties were the subject of fierce argument. Morton Shand, a prominent food and wine writer in the Twenties and Thirties, remembered lengthy after-dinner debates on the subject during his childhood in Kensington. "Ribston and Blenheim were the clarion names," he recalled, "seldom uttered without a just perceptible trace of religious awe... Old friends quarrelled perenially over which was the nobler, just as they did over whether Chteau Latour or Chteau Lafite was the supreme expression of pre-phylloxera Bordeaux."

It may be too early to say for sure, but it seems unlikely that the destruction of 15 per cent of our apple orchards this year, at the behest of the EU, will provoke similar passion. A couple of ranting Europhobic tabloid articles, a stream of emollient comment from the trade, and that was it. Silence. No "National Apple Congress" like that of 1883, no Guildhall shows staged by the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers. Just a twinge of pain from an old wound, and then apathy.

The trade sees the grubbing-up grant, which is intended to apply throughout the EU, as a step in the right direction. "It's an attempt by the EU to reduce the surplus of production over demand," explains Malcom Scofield, managing director of the English Fruit Company, which sells 55 per cent of the apples in this country. The EC produces about 10 million apples, and demand is for seven to eight million. He argues that the net effect should be healthy. "By removing some of the older orchards, the quality of the remaining Cox orchards will be better. One of the problems has been poor product dragging down the good."

But some growers interpret the EU's directives more liberally than others. In fruit as, famously, in beef, butter and wine, the EU's Common Agricultural Policy has traditionally prescribed "intervention payments" to deal with surpluses: buying up farmers' unsaleable produce to keep prices stable from year to year. This system encourages farmers to overproduce deliberately in order to qualify for the intervention money - an abuse common in southern Europe for years. Grants for grubbing up, in which farmers are paid to destroy, should be taking place throughout the Union, but in southern countries the old intervention racket carries on just as before. Cox's trees go up in smoke, and the effect is to make room for yet more Golden Delicious in our shops. Domestically-produced apples sold in Britain now sell below 40 per cent.

But if English customers won't buy English apples, what can be done? "We haven't got the same parochial attitude as the French, the Spanish and the Italians," says Malcolm Scofield. "What those countries say is, yes, we are true Europeans - but we look after our own. We need to be a little more healthily parochial and cynical about how we operate in Europe.

"The English are not finished," he insists. "We've still got the finest apples in the world by a mile, we still produce a product with far better flavour and texture." Scofield also believes that both retailers and the public are waking up to the need to support British products. "It seemed an old-fashioned idea in the Eighties, but it's on the increase now."

If pride of country has been slow to reawaken among the English, it is perhaps because the symbols in which it has customarily been vested are so very tired and unattractive. A new symbol of England's sense of itself should be free of those attributes which divide us. It should be cheap, unpretentious and universally available. If it is also of a culinary complexity to confound the French, and created accidentally by a man from Bermondsey and Slough, so much the better. Cometh the hour, cometh the Cox's Orange Pippin.