The Apple Source Book
particular uses for diverse apples

You could eat a different kind of apple every day for more than six years and still not come to the end of the varieties we can grow in Britain. An amazing two thousand three hundred cultivars of dessert and cooking apples have been grown here, as well as hundreds of cider apples, which are specific to the west.

Every apple pip offers a new shuffle of the genetic pack; varieties flourishing by the motorway, wildings from thrown-out apple cores, may hold as much taste and goodness, or even economic promise, as a new variety from a horticultural research establishment.

Many apples are traceable to their orchards, woods, hedges and gardens of origin. Since a variety can be perpetuated only by grafting a cutting onto a rootstock, or the tree being left to grow up again after it has fallen, our relationship with it keeps it alive. Unless we value it for its flavour, natural goodness, hardiness, heritage importance or beauty it will disappear. Currently the few varieties that add most to the national economy dominate a repertoire of nearly 3,000.

Without the benefit of special storage, the season for apples starts in July, with Emneth Early, Gladstone, Beauty of Bath, Laxton’s Early Crimson and Discovery, and continues until spring with May Queen. The early varieties have short shelf lives, but the later ones, such as Blenheim Orange and Annie Elizabeth, can be stored in mouse-proof cool places into May. The Hambledon Deux Ans is reputed to last for two years. Chastise yourself then, when you take from the superstore shelf Golden Delicious from France, Idared from the US or Granny Smith from Australia during our long season.

The Pitmaston Pine from Worcestershire fits into the smallest hand; it is a delicate yellow, its juicy flesh paler lemon. Compare this elegant little dessert apple with Peasgood’s Nonsuch, a giant apple from Lincolnshire, or Reverend Wilks from Middlesex, with its bright white flesh and greasy-feeling skin, which is pale and creamy with a few reddish stripes.

Laid out along a table for comparison on Apple Day (21 October), apples take the breath away with their variety, colour, aroma and presence. Tasting and identifying them requires all the skills of the wine connoisseur. In north Devon, Orchards Live has compiled a list of nearly two hundred apples with a close Devon association, such as Devonshire Quarrenden, Fair Maid of Devon, Killerton Sharp and Whimple Queen. June Small of Charlton Orchards in Somerset has identified 156 Somerset apple varieties, many of which have links with particular villages, towns or parts of the county, such as Yarlington Mill and Bridgwater Pippin.

There was great activity and competition to introduce new varieties in the nineteenth century, spurred on by Royal Horticultural Society certificates and economic fortune. Thomas Laxton of Bedford and his family after him were some of the most successful plant breeders in the world, producing varieties such as Lord Lambourne, Laxton’s Fortune, Laxton’s Superb and Barnack Beauty/Orange.

Variety comes on other levels: a single Ribston Pippin (a Yorkshire forbear of the Cox) has more vitamin C than a pound of Golden Delicious. In the Tamar Valley on the Devon/Cornwall border there are apple trees with aerial roots. Recipes for cider cake vary from village to village in the West Country, where there are cider gravies, peas cooked in cider and Squab Pie, which pairs pigeon with apple.

In Devon, apple cake is made with apple puree, cinnamon and raisins and in Dorset with chopped cooking apple and currants; in Somerset the chopped apple is combined with cinnamon and mixed spice. In Cornwall the cake may resemble the French tarte Tatin.

The hundreds of customs and games that we have created around the apple echo the importance it has had in our lives. Almost every farm, from Northumberland to Cornwall, had its orchards; labourers were paid in cider. City folk travelled to pick fruit in the Garden of England and the orchards of Herefordshire. Costermongers’ (apple sellers) cries rang out in street markets, and greengrocers put out baths of water full of apples for games at Hallowe’en, known as Dookie Apple Night in Newcastle and Duck Apple Night in Liverpool. In Mobberley, Cheshire and other places, Crabbing the Parson was practised, crab apples pelted at the incumbent on the local saint’s day.

It takes time for customs to differentiate themselves, just as an intricate landscape demonstrates the deep relationship that we and nature have developed over hundreds of years. The rich repertoire of apple games and customs links season, produce and locality, yet we are in danger of forgetting what they mean because we have ceased to value our apples and orchards. They are the more vulnerable since some are peculiar to a single place.

Within the landscape fruit trees flavour the locality. The individual geographies and histories of apples are not merely interesting, they are fragments of knowledge from which a future can be made. They may amount to the same thing, but gene banks, biodiversity and endemism do not have the same ring as Keswick Codlin, Teesdale Nonpareil, Cornish Gillyflower, Kentish Fillbasket, Lady Henniker, Roundway Magnum Bonum, Stoke Edith Pippin and Yorkshire Greening . . . nor do they carry the cultural depth of Ten Commandments and Grow-bi-nights.

From: The Apple Source Book, by Sue Clifford and Angela King, with Philippa Davenport,
Hodder & Stoughton (ISBN 978-0340951897), hb 304 pages, b&w illustrations £16.99.