Consuming Issues: Why English apples are the pick of the crop

By Martin Hickman
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:34

By now, you've probably heard that this year's English apples will be particularly fine, with an almost perfect balance of sweetness and acidity and an especially bright skin. Not quite as delicious as the apples of 1970, experts say, but the kind of crop that comes around only once every seven years or so.

While these fruity spheres are being picked from orchards, supermarket shelves will be laden with shiny green intruders from Australia, New Zealand and the US. We eat far fewer home-grown apples than imports, even though the wet, sunny orchards of southern England are ideally suited to apple production.

This, though, isn't going to be a denunciation of grocery chains for browbeating farmers until the last penny of profit has been wrung out of them, nor for grading out 30 per cent of edible fruit because it is too small, too big or too blemished, nor because pollution from ships and planes criss-crossing the world to supply fruit all year round is damaging the climate and, ultimately, the ability of people in those producer countries to feed themselves; although they are responsible for all these things.

Instead it's a story of hope, about how English apple growers are undergoing a revival, about how you, me, we, have been buying more English apples, and their future is now as rosy as the red-tinged skin of a Cox's Orange Pippin, the subtle lord of the 2,000 varieties grown in fields, gardens and orchards.

First the background: Department of Environment figures show the proportion of home-grown apples tumbled year after year in the 1990s and 2000s as supermarkets sourced more foreign apples all year round. In 1989, before the fall, 49 per cent of apples were home-grown. By 1995 that figure had dipped to 40 per cent, before plummeting to 23 per cent in 2003, the low point.

A few years after green groups started fussing about the decline, doing surveys showing the pitiful number of domestic apples on shelves, the trend started to reverse and sales of English apples rose. Last year, according to Adrian Barlow, chief executive of trade body English Apples & Pears, British growers sold more apples to UK supermarkets than in any year since 2000.

This autumn, English Apples & pears forecasts a healthy crop of 200,000 tonnes and strong sales once more – because shoppers are looking out for shrinkwrapped packs bearing the Union Flag. "We have seen a dramatic revival in the industry in the last five years," says Mr Barlow, welcoming "a huge upsurge in consumers seeking local produce".

While a decade ago only one in four apples was English, last year it was one in three, 34 per cent.

"We could go to 70 per cent [which would double current production] and still allow imports of those varieties we cannot grow: Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Pink Lady," says Mr Barlow.

But first, he urges, public bodies must enshrine in their procurement contracts the buying of English produce. With public spending cuts looming, that may not happen, despite the best intentions of the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, who has praised hospitals that buy local food.

Shoppers can still help, by buying English apples of all shapes when in season (from August to December, roughly) and freshly squeezed juice from orchards at farmers' markets, butchers and delicatessens.

Not just because it's the right thing to do (though it is), but because, in their crispness, flavour and subtlety, English apples cannot be bettered. This year, because the seasons have been kind, with a warm blast of summer sun following winter snow, they are especially sweet.

Heroes and villains: Pret gets even better

Hero: Pret a Manger

The sandwich chain is one of the few to list calories next to all its freshly prepared products. This week it stopped importing chicken from countries with lower animal welfare standards, and moved to 100 per cent British chicken from Suffolk – which have 20 per cent more space to roam than normal factory-farmed hens.

Villain: Ticketmaster

The ticket agency says it has nothing to do with the price of new, fluctuating "market-based" tickets for gigs at the 02 arena in London, Britain's biggest rock venue, but it seems happy to help promoters extract the maximum amount of money from concert-goers, rather than setting a fixed, lower price for all tickets, which used to happen.

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