As provenance of food becomes ever more of an issue, you can’t go wrong with English apples. Adrian Barlow, chief executive, English Apples and Pears, takes a look at the industry and concludes that in spite of adverse challenges in the past, the future looks bright for this tasty part of English heritage.
English apples have a rich history extending back through many centuries. Indeed, it was the Romans who first introduced varieties with sweeter and greater taste. The improvements continued in monasteries following the Norman Conquest while further advances occurred after Henry VIII instructed his fruiterer Richard Harris to identify and introduce new varieties from the continent, which were planted in his orchard in Kent.
The raising of new varieties, however, didn’t reach its zenith until the late 19th and early 20th Centuries when nurserymen and gardeners employed by major estates in England concentrated on producing apples with outstanding taste. Today, many of the older varieties are no longer suitable for commercial production due to several reasons such as poor skin finish or low productivity. Nevertheless, they provide a vital gene bank for future varietal development and there are almost 1900 different varieties in the National Fruit Collection at Faversham in Kent.
Despite the outstanding work of researchers in raising new varieties, the primary factor responsible for the outstanding taste of British apples has been our climate. The absence of extreme temperatures combined with adequate rainfall allows our apples to grow relatively slowly and develop their full flavour potential. While our climate prevents us from producing some varieties of apple, those that are grown in the UK boast unrivalled taste and flavour.
Unfortunately, during the final 20 years of the last century, lack of profitability for British growers due to low prices led to many orchards being taken out of production and replanted with other crops. In the last four years, however, there has been a considerable increase in consumers’ demand for English apples as issues such as climate change, carbon footprints and ‘buy local’ take centre stage.
The English apple season begins in early August with Discovery being the first major commercial variety. Worcester Pearmain follows at the beginning of September and is joined by other early varieties such as Early Windsor.
The major varieties become available from late September. Why not make English apples a feature on your cheese boards by adding slices of locally harvested apples when in season? A great talking point and, as sourcing locally becomes more and more of an issue, evidence that you are indeed doing just that.
Cox’s Orange Pippin, which was introduced in about 1850, is the largest single variety of dessert apple grown in Britain and is widely regarded as one of the finest eating apples in the world due to its outstanding flavour and honey-like aroma. English Coxes are available until mid-April.
Gala, first grown in Britain in the 1980s, also becomes available from late September with supplies continuing until the end of March. Gala has a sweet flavour and an attractive red-striped skin finish that has helped to establish its popularity – so much so that it is likely to overtake Cox as the largest English commercial variety within the next four years.
Many other old varieties become available at the end of September in limited volumes. Egremont Russet, an apple with a distinctive light-brown skin and a nutty taste, was first recorded in 1872 but is still an important commercial variety with availability from October to March.
In recent years many new varieties have been introduced including English-grown Braeburn, production of which is now increasing rapidly with supplies available from mid-December until May. There remain considerable opportunities for further English production of this variety to replace imports. English-grown Jazz, Cameo and Kanzi are other new varieties whose production is increasing with supplies being available from December to May.
The supreme apple for cooking is the Bramley, which is celebrating its bicentenary this year. First grown from a pip of unknown origin in 1809, the original tree still stands in the garden of a cottage in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Bramley has a unique ability to retain its tangy taste throughout cooking and to produce a wonderfully light, moist texture. It really is an iconic product and the variety represents more than 95 per cent of the total cooking apples sold.
Production techniques have undergone great change with modern commercial orchards being planted more intensively than formerly. The trees themselves are grafted to ‘dwarf’ rooting stocks, which reduce the trees’ height, thereby not only allowing picking to be undertaken from the ground without the need for ladders, but also reducing the time required for pruning.
The history of the English apple industry has been characterised by continuous change in terms of varieties and orchard management. There have been periods of depression and great success. Following several decades of the former, a real renaissance is now taking place with increased demand, the introduction of new varieties and investment by growers in new orchards, packing and storage facilities. The industry is optimistic about the future while increasing production is already enabling more consumers to enjoy the unrivalled taste of English apples than for many years.
- It is thought that apples were first cultivated in south-west Asia in 1500 BC
- UK consumers eat 4.5 billion apples a year
- Each year the UK produces 205,000 tonnes of apples
- Apples are low in fat and contain almost no salt
- Apples are a good source of boron, a mineral that is believed to help prevent osteoporosis and increase mental alertness
- Apples contain flavonoids, which can be beneficial for the heart and circulatory system, lung health and certain cancers, studies have shown.