In rural south New Jersey, where I mostly grew up, apple orchards surrounded us with miles of fruitfulness and roadside stands. I remember the openness of the space where they grew, and the smell of apple — of Winesap and Macintosh, and the cool mustiness of what we called the Cider Place, where we’d get gallons of dark juice, and apples by the bushel: how good it tasted to drink down icy cold; how joyful it was to crunch down to the core. We grew up with the beauty of apple blossom, and the life of the orchards: old wood crawling with beetles and rich with mosses and lichen; wildflowers, bees and birdlife, and of course the excitement of seeing those hard green pippins plump and ripen into autumn, when their appley scent was carried in the air with leaf mould and wood smoke, and the deer would get drunk on fermenting windfalls.
When I moved to England many years ago I learned that the British lay claim to the apple as their own in a way as elemental to them as my childhood ownership of apples was to me. The apple runs deep in the national psyche, and while most of the world has a claim to the apple, Britain can make a convincing case for a distinctive, if not exclusive, relationship with this immensely varied fruit.
The apple’s heritage is greater than any fruit on these shores, its uses nearly infinite, from cider, to cooking, to eating off the tree, with each having its own subtleties and complexities, its own balance of sweetness and acidity, and hints of citrus, licorice, or spice. No other country has specialised so much in an apple for every use, and from every county, and nearly every parish, even. The quintessential British apple still has a local stamp from a time when distance was measured by human footsteps, and orchards represented permanance and timelessness in the British landscape. Some say the apple reflects the qualities we associate with Britishness itself: adaptability, tolerance, inventiveness, diversity.
With apple season coming to its peak, local orchards, farmer’s markets, and Apple Days are offering varieties so numerous it’s impossible not to be seduced by their fragrances, shapes and names, their histories and hues, as colourful as a Shakespearean cast: the jolly reds of Falstaff, and buttercup yellow King of the Pippins; the lipstick-pink Fuji with its brushstrokes of white; Honeycrisp’s wild peppermint stripes; the matt reds and browns of Ashmead’s Kernal; the diminutive golden Pitmaston Pineapple; the multigreen majesty of Bramley and Howgate Wonder; the sunset shades of an Egremont Russet. It’s a beauty pageant, each variety having some merit distinctly its own, each individual fruit with its personal arrangement of freckles, stripes and imperfections.Apples are homely and comforting, their associations with the loss of paradise redeemed into wholesomeness. The apple reassures. Unlike a plum or peach, the apple is robust, sturdy enough for marching Roman legions, or a hobbit walking party. You can carry one in a lunchbox, or shove it in a pocket — juggle them, even, and they won’t suffer much. Storage doesn’t kill the apple’s flavour, and is even required to make the most of some. We think of apples as the cats of the fruit world, capable of looking after themselves. And yet…
With all this magnificent abundance, its industrialised cultivation has consigned most varieties to gardens, community orchards, and extinction. Of the 17,000 varieties once known worldwide, 80% are believed to have been lost. Of the 3,000 known to have been grown in Britain, and the 2,200 currently held in the national fruit collection at Brogdale in Kent, only a handful are cultivated widely enough to be generally recognised, and the wonderfully varied tastes of lesser-known varieties has fallen out of common knowledge.
This is a loss not just of the apple itself, but of a rich cultural heritage, and the orchard eco-system that for centuries helped to shape the British landscape and provide a home to its wildlife.
Around 40% of apples eaten in Britain today are grown here. English Apples & Pears, the trade body representing UK commercial growers, wants to increase this to 60% by 2030. Sales of traditional British favourites – Cox’s Orange Pippin, Egremont Russet and Worcester Pearmain – have fallen steadily for years, while Gala, Braeburn, Jazz and Pink Lady, all originally New Zealand and Australian varieties, have been rising fast. Gala and its offshoot Royal Gala are now the biggest-selling eating apple in the UK; and total sales, including home-grown and imported Gala, are more than four times that of the old British favourite, the Cox.
The number of commercial orchards in Britain has fallen around 36% in the last 20 years, and those remaining are getting bigger and cultivating ever more intensively. The industry has planted eight million new trees in recent years, and invested £120 million in research and development. However, with the exception of Bramleys, the varieties they’ve invested most in are not British-bred varieties. Growers cultivate around 25 varieties, but only nine originated here. So, yes, there should be more opportunities for us to eat apples grown in the UK, but the “Buy British” slogan tells only part of the story, as the so-called Antipodean Four varieties are set to continue dominating the market.
Traditional orchards, by contrast, were home to a variety of fruit trees, including several cultivars of apple, grown on large trees that were long-lived, and widely spaced, with little or no soil disturbance required in their upkeep. Orchards often integrated animals: bees were kept to aid pollination; chickens ranged in the grass eating insects and fertilising the soil; and sometimes a pig or two would benefit from the spoiled fruit. Unlike annual crops, orchards were meant to last, and indeed an apple tree can live 100 years, or even longer. And each orchard had its own unique eco-system, providing a countrywide mosaic of biodiverse habitats — woodland, hedgerow and meadow grassland — for native species of plant and animal life.
Apples may be quintessentially British, but the domestic apple originates from a wild crabapple native to Central Asia (most likely Kazakhstan, on the border with China), first cultivated between 4,000 to 10,000 years ago. Apple remains dated to 6500 BC have been found in Jericho; Alexander the Great spread the apple throughout the Greek world after his conquest of the Persians; and the Romans brought the apple to Britain. The apple diaspora to North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, is a consequence not only of human mobility, but the apple’s exceptional adaptability as a biological family. There is an apple for most places and most growing conditions.
By medieval times, the Roman’s well-ordered apple orchards were no more, and the British taste for cider, aquired from the Normans post-conquest, dominated apple production. The 12thcentury expansion of Cistercian monasteries promoted its cultivation, as monks planted orchards as a homage to paradise, wherever they built their vast network of abbeys. One of the most famous medieval orchards was at the monastery originally founded by St Etheldreda at Ely. The propagation of eating varieties was revived in France in the 13thand 14thcenturies, making it the place English fruiterers relied on for imports of palatable varieties for increasingly wealthy town populations and important state occasions. At the Renaissance table, apples of quality became a status symbol, and their cultivation was encouraged by royal patronage.
Apples have grown in Britain since the Romans brought them here, but it was the Age of Empire, and the Victorian passion for gardening on the scale afforded by large fortunes, that was most responsible for the blossoming of British apple culture. Plant collectors brought back fruits from all over the world, and breeders, both commercial, and those knowledgeable head-gardeners employed by the wealthy, experimented with new crosses, giving some varieties their names: the Lord Burghley, Lord Peckover, and Lady Hollendale, to name some from Cambridgeshire. The Victorians cultivated hundreds of new apples, and as Alison Richards, in her encyclopaedic study of the apple writes, “connoisseurs … would compare varieties, regions and vintages with the same subtlety and intensity with which they discussed the claret.”
Amateur breeders and cottage gardeners also developed choice specimens. This was aided by the biology of the apple, which rarely comes true to seed and must be grafted to reproduce the same fruit type, so chance seedlings can sometimes produce a happy accident, deemed good enough to propagate. Any variety with the words ‘pippin’ or ‘seedling’ in its name indicates it was originally a natural ‘sport’ selected for its virtues.
History proves our current reliance on imports is nothing new. As the prestige of the British apple rose in the mid-19thcentury, the growing middle classes created such a thriving market for cheaper apples from France and North America that the native apple industry faced extinction. Alison Richards assesses the reaction as one of bulldog spirit: “Enthusiasm for English apples aquired the … intensity that arises from a sense of imminent loss. … All rallied to mount a veritable ‘fruit crusade’ to modernise old orchards, guide the new fruit growers, beat the ‘Yankes’ and persuade fruiterers and their customers to buy English apples before it was too late.”
Around 3,000 acres of new orchards were planted each year during the 1880s and 90s, in the traditional fruit growing areas of Kent and Evesham, and also in new areas of eastern England, including the Cambridge area.
This mid-19th century push to rescue the British industry gave rise to the large-scale fruit growing that’s been so important to Cambridgeshire. The first large Bramley orchards were planted around Wisbech, where they are still a major crop, supplying processed apple to the bakery trade. In 1851 the Chivers family bought land at Histon to supply the wholesale fresh market andjam manufacturers in the North, the Midlands and London. The family later founded its own jam factory, encouraging the planting of many new orchards in surrounding villages. The Chivers also bred their own apple varieties, including the still-reliable Chivers Delight, and the yellow- and pink-striped Histon Favourite.
A strong orcharding tradition continued across Cambridgeshire for the next century, and there are over 20 local apple varieties still known to be in existence, many of which you can see at a local Apple Day – the one-bite Red Crockett, bred for the toffee apple trade; the Jolly Miller, believed to have been named for a Cottenham village pub where the fruit was once traded; the complex-flavoured Barnack Beauty; and another 20 at least, are believed to have been lost.
Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community in the 1970s saw major changes in the economics of fruit growing. Not only did it open the doors to competing apples such as the French Golden Delicious, agricultural subsidies were heavily biased towards cereal production and growers were offered ‘grubbing grants’ to dig up their orchards and convert their land to arable use.
In the past two decades, concern over the loss of orchards prompted a number of organisations, including the East of England Apple and Orchard Project, whose knowledgeable members are to be found at Apple Days around the region, to undertake comprehensive studies of traditional orchards. These have found that around 90% of the orchards existing in 1950 have since disappeared, with those surviving still being vulnerable to neglect, conversion to arable land, or redevelopment for housing and paddocks.
Traditional orchards are now part of the Cambridgeshire County’s Biodiversity Action Plan, and recognised nationally by the DEFRA, as Designated Priority Habitats, valued as hotspots for biodiversity, including rare and scarce species, and for their great variety of fruit cultivars.
There has been a groundswell of public interest in orchards, and in my home county of Cambridgeshire, community orchards in Trumpington, Reach, Cambourne, Impington and Histon, and Misdummer Common in the city, to name a few, are reviving threatened apple varieties and working to reinstate orchard habitats.
The People’s Trust for Endangered Species keeps an up-to-date list of orchards, and has identified 35,000 in England alone. They regularly add new orchards to the register and find new apple varieties, many that were never before recorded.
It’s heartening to know that even if most of our heritage apples have become commercially extinct, they’re not quite biologically extinct, thanks to dedicated apple detectives, conservationists, gardeners and volunteers. We are also blessed in this area to have local growers like the Manning family farm in Willingham, the Cam Valley Orchards in Meldreth, and the Heath Farm in Bluntisham, who safeguard a generous variety of interesting and sometimes rare apples for sale at their farm gates.
The Common Ground environment group, which 20 years ago initiated the annual Apple Days that have done so much to promote apples and orchards around the country, is hopeful that a corner has been turned, but cautious, too, acknowledging that while we’re in a far better position than we were then, we started at a low point and have a long way to go.
The health of orchards and apple biodiversity is so important to our food security, so embedded in our history, culture and national identity, and so critical to our environment, that it should be integrated into the way our food is produced, and securely underpinned by stewardship at every level.
Perhaps one of the achievements of the grassroots movement to revive the orchard will be to encourage large retailers and growers to look beyond the presumed consumer demand for uniform red and samey sweetness, and give more space to older varieties worth preserving for their range of flavours.
…And not just for the sake of culinary curiosity. Our food supply will always face threats from pests and disease, climate change and other factors we only partly foresee; and solutions to some of the problems we’ll face in the future can come from the genetic information stored in these richly diverse and fruitful trees — each with its own very human story.
[I wrote and broadcast this story as part of a series of food essays for the food programme, Flavour, on Cambridge 105 Radio. You can hear the whole programme here.]
More apple recipes and stories on Crumbs on the Table:
- Apple butter and ginger cake
- Chicken braised in cider with buttered apples
- French-style custardy apple cake
Laura’s other food essay podcasts on Crumbs on the Table:
- Bonfire Night: food cooked over fire
- A Christmas Essay
- In search of the honest apricot
- New decade, new national food strategy
Where to buy interesting apples in the Cambridge area:
- Bushel Box Farm Shop in Willingham sells 32 varieties of apple, many older varieties. This small independent orchard has been a working fruit farm for over 50 years.
- Cam Valley Orchard in Meldreth sells 24 varieties, and has a 9-acre Heritage Orchard. First planted around 1900, it was grubbed in the mid 80’s for arable crops, but Re-planted from 2005 with a range of varieties, many dating back to the Victorian times or earlier.
- Heath Farm, Bluntisham, near Ely, in the Cambridgeshire fens, in a village once almost completely based on fruit growing, grows 17 varieties of apple, including Perfection – a Cox and Worcester cross bred at the orchard.
- Caroline Ball. Heritage Apples (Bodleian Library, 2019)
- Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book (Penguin, 1982)
- Joan Morgan and Alison Richards. The New Book of Apples (Ebury Press, 2002); and their original study: The Book of Apples (Ebury Press, 1993)
- “What you learn from 50 million years of apple genetic history”