Consuming Issues: Crunch time for our core assets as English apple season approaches
Saturday 01 August 2009
Their names drip history as juicily as their flesh. Allington Pippin, Demelow's Seedling, Sir John Thorneycroft, Hoary Morning; all hint at the rich heritage and provenance of English apples.
Britain has 2,300 varieties of apples, with a few hundred more cider specialities, though you wouldn't know that from the shops.
Supermarkets, which sell 80 per cent of the fruit, typically stock only four or five varieties. Greengrocers and street markets are little better. This is the time of year, though, to make the most of the home-grown apples, wherever they can be found.
Thanks to an exceptionally good year, the first of this summer's harvest arrived at a Tesco in Sevenoaks in Kent two weeks ago.
For most of us, the English apple season starts on August 10 and continues to December, with a few stragglers lingering until March. During these eight months, those wildlife-rich units of the countryside – orchards – produce 240,000 tonnes of glorious, lip-smackingly sweet spheres.
Most are not Hoary Mornings or Allington Pippins ("sharp but agreeable flavour, pale greenish yellow with a little red"). They are the cheddars of the apple world: ubiquitous, ordinary and everyday enjoyable.
Forty per cent of eating apples are grown in the UK but often imported Galas and Braeburns. Other varieties bouncing off the shelves – Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious – cannot be produced here.
Demand for all-year-round imports from the likes of New Zealand, 11,000 miles away, have cut the number of English orchards by 60 per cent in the last 30 years and by a third since 1997.
The good news is that the supermarket chains have responded to the public outcry and, after more than a decade of decline, English orchards are thriving again.
"The situation began to stabilise after 2001 and four years ago there was an upsurge in demand for local supplies," says Adrian Barlow, chief executive of English Apples & Pears. "This was due to wider recognition of the quality of English apples combined with growing consumer concerns about climate change and carbon emissions."
Consumer power has halted the decline. What we need to do now is buy more English apples (production could double, according to Mr Barlow), particularly the more unusual ones. They could be found at street markets, farm shops or a neighbour's garden.
When author Tristram Stuart placed an advert on his local Freecycle website in Sussex ("Wanted: Apples"), he was so bombarded by fruit that he set up an old-fashioned press on a village green and squeezed 550 pints of apple juice, some of which became cider.
If you have an apple tree at home, you can take an apple for identification to one of hundreds of apple-tasting and juicing events taking place across the country on Apple Day, October 21.
"It seems amazing that when our season is going on you can still pick up half-dead apples from the other side of the world," says Sue Clifford, a director of Common Ground, Apple Day's co-ordinator.
But only eat them in season, she adds. "By May, the strawberries and plums are arriving and there is a whole new world of wonderful fruits that you can pack in before the next apples arrive."
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