The apple might not be the most exciting fruit on the supermarket shelf, but there’s a reason for that. Of all the varieties of apple that are still available today, the supermarkets only sell a handful. So, if you only shopped there, you might think that your only options were these ones, chosen for many reasons, but one of them is without question, their hardiness and suitability to be transported all over the globe. Taste is not at the top of the list, so there is no wonder that other fruit would be more appealing.
However, the humble apple gets more exciting when you realise the truth about it. The truth is that there are ( wait for it) 2,000 varieties of apple still around today, all grown at the National Apple Collection at Brogdale, Kent. Amazing! They have a huge variety of tastes, shapes, perfumes and textures, not to mention wonderful names. Who could resist a Bloody Ploughman, Peasgood’s Nonsuch, Norfolk Beefing, Cornish Gilliflower or Doctor Harvey? All old English varieties with stories to suit their names. I have yet to see a Catshead variety but when I do I will be looking to see if it lives up to its name (which apparently, in profile, it does!)
I am fortunate enough to have four varieties on my plot:
I planted these myself and chose a combination of old heritage varieties and modern types, because the modern ones tend to be hardier and are more prolific. Often heritage varieties of any fruit or vegetable have something about them that has led to them being commercially unattractive, but are still of huge value not only for their fruit but to preserve our biodiversity and heritage.
Blenheim Orange – an orange- red flushed variety producing large fruit. This was originally found growing against the boundary wall of the Blenheim Estate by a man called Kempster, and known as Kempster’s Pippin, the Duke Of Marlborough gave his approval for it to be made commercially available under the name of Blenheim Orange. This variety produces beautiful fruit, but is biennial (only fruits every other year) and can be erratic.
Katy – a modern hybrid (James Greive x Worcester Pearmain) which produces bright red fruit with pink tinged flesh. It’s really prolific and has a really sweet variety with strawberry undertones. Once picked, they quickly go soft so need eating up, so it’s a good job they’re so popular with my kids!
Court Pendu Plat – an ancient variety, with a history across Europe. My tree was originally designed to be a step-over but I wasn’t timely enough with training it so now it’s just a tiny tree with its first equally tiny fruit (and I mean ONE fruit!) growing this year. I am keeping my fingers crossed that it is going to ripen successfully, as the fruit is intensely flavoured with a pineapple acidity which will keep until February. The day I eat it, I will be sitting down and just concentrating on that taste…
Kidd’s Orange Red – another hybrid (Cox’s Orange Pippin x Delicious) produced by an amaateur breeder in New Zealand. Has a lovely flowery taste, stays on the tree longer than Katy ( so I don’t get a glut) and is another prolific fruiter.
I have space for a fifth tree, and will be planting a different old heritage variety this winter. Possibly one that will be good for cooking with – but keep its shape when cooked. I’d like to make my own Tarte Tatin, one of my favourite apple recipes. Luckily these days, a much wider variety of apple trees are available for sale as interest grows in our heritage varieties so my only problem will be choosing which one!
If you’re interested in learning more about apples, or in fact just having a lovely day out, the wonderful organisation that is Common Ground hold Apple Day every October, with a wide variety of events up and down the country. I usually go to the one held at RHS Harlow Carr, which is always a great event, with a room packed with rare varieties to view, bags of different apples to buy and specialists on hand to help you identify the variety of apple tree you might have in your back garden! Plus, lots of activities, the stunning gardens to walk around, Betty’s Tea Rooms and a brilliant bookshop.
More wonderful apple resources:
‘The Apple Source Book’ by Sue Clifford and Angela King at Common Ground (Hodder and Stoughton) has recipes, history and an index of varieties.
‘The New Book of Apples’ by Joan Morgan and Alison Richards (Ebury Press) is a comprehensive history of the fruit and indexes more than 2,000 varieties.
‘Tender Volume II’ Fruit (Fourth Estate) by Nigel Slater. Some of my favorite apple recipes and beautiful writing from my favourite cookery writer.
‘An apple a day keeps the Doctor away’
J.T. Stinson. Address to the St Louis Expedition, Missouri 1904