Britain is the only country in the world where a cooking apple (the incomparable 'Bramley', of course) is a major force in the market. Elsewhere, the distinction isn't so clearly made. Any old apple will do for a French tarte tatin. Here, if you're baking an apple, or making a sauce, or preparing a charlotte, you wouldn't reach for anything but a 'Bramley'. Nothing else cooks to such a light, airy froth. Nothing else provides such a perfect balance between sharp and mellow.
"The best English apples by long training know how to behave in a pie," wrote the Edwardian connoisseur, Edward Bunyard. "They melt but do not squelch; they inform, but do not predominate. The early apples, grateful as we are for their reappearance, are not true pie-makers… We pardon these adolescents, who do the best they can, but we pass on to the later autumn apples to find pie manners at their best."
'Bramley' is ready for picking by mid-October and, given the right kind of cool storage, can be kept right through to the beginning of April. The slightly damp, stone-floored stores by the back door in our old house were ideal.
'Bramley' was the first apple ever to be kept in controlled-atmosphere stores, newly invented by Drs Kidd and West of the Low Temperature Research Station in Cambridge in the 1920s. It survives pretty well under those conditions, which is why you can now buy 'Bramley' almost all the year round. But there is nothing to beat having your own apple tree and 'Bramley', unlike 'Cox', is blessedly resistant to scab and many of the other perils to which apples are prone. Especially prone if they are grown on dwarfing rootstock.f
You can't dwarf a 'Bramley'. It is one of the most vigorous of all apples with wide, spreading branches and thick, leathery leaves. So don't think you can tame it into a cordon, or even a fan. Plant it where it can have a long life with plenty of space. The original 'Bramley' still grows in the garden of a cottage in Church Street, Southwell, Nottinghamshire, where it was first raised from seed by Mary Ann Brailsford. That was some time between 1809 and 1813. So, we should really be calling this apple 'Brailsford' not 'Bramley', which is the name of the local butcher, Matthew Bramley, who bought the cottage in 1848 and inherited Mary Ann's tree.
The apple was introduced to the wider world by Henry Merryweather, who had a nursery in the village; soon after it was first shown in exhibition, it won the highest award possible from the Royal Horticultural Society – a First Class Certificate. That was in 1883 and it has never been toppled from its position as the best cooking apple ever.
Since Britain became part of the European Union, commercial apple orchards have declined by 70 per cent. We can grow wonderful apples – our climate suits them – and in 1972 apple orchards covered 55,000 acres. Now there are just 4,886 acres. Less blossom for insects to forage in. More imports. More food miles. More packaging.
The only complication in planting a 'Bramley' apple is that it is a triploid. In scientific terms, that means that its cells have one and a half times the usual number of chromosomes. In gardening terms, it means that 'Bramley' can't pollinate other apples and requires two other apples to pollinate itself. Crab apples will do as well as eating kinds.
The way to get the most successful cross-pollination is to choose trees that flower at roughly the same time. Good suppliers of fruit trees will include a number alongside the varieties they list, which shows which pollination group the tree belongs to. 'Bramley' is in Group 3. So plant it with other Group 3 trees such as the dual purpose 'Charles Ross', 'Claygate Pearmain' or the popular Canadian variety 'Spartan'. There's usually an overlap in flowering time and so trees from groups 2 and 4 would also work. They don't have to be planted right alongside. Pollinating insects forage widely and in built-up areas, there may well be trees in neighbouring gardens that will do the job.
There's another thing to remember about 'Bramley'. It bears fruit, as most apple trees do, on the spurs made along the branches, but it also bears on the tips. So it's no good hacking away at a 'Bramley' to try to make it fit into a space that's too small for it. By hacking, you'll be cutting off the branch tips that will bear perhaps half the crop. It's another reason not to try planting a 'Bramley' as a single-stemmed cordon.
If you don't have enough space for a 'Bramley', or if you think all this triploid stuff is too complicated, there are other cooking apples you might choose, such as 'Rev W Wilks'. This is not a keeper, like 'Bramley' but it makes a neat, small tree, say 8ft across (about half the size of a 'Bramley') and produces big fruit with creamy-white flesh. Picked early in September, these will generally keep until November.
Wilks wouldn't have lent his name to anything that wasn't first class. He was secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society for more than 30 years from the 1880s onwards and was a mean judge of a plant. He was vicar of Shirley near Croydon in Surrey, which was where, by patient selection, he bred the Shirley poppy. The apple, though, was raised by the famous Veitch nursery at Slough which introduced it in 1908. It belongs to pollination Group 2, so you might plant it with the excellent early eater 'George Cave' or the strawberry-flavoured 'Devonshire Quarrenden'. Trees are available from Keepers Nursery, Gallants Court, Gallants Lane, East Farleigh, Maidstone, Kent ME15 0LE, 01622 726465, keepers-nursery.co.uk. The nursery is generally closed to visitors but there's an Open Day tomorrow (10am-4pm), an unrivalled opportunity to see one of the biggest collection of fruit trees in Britain.