As one supermarket chain has discovered, it’s time to start growing your own English apples. By Edan Ambrose
It’s Apple Day on Saturday – a chance to celebrate the astonishing varieties of apples that still exist in this country, or a day or mourning for those that we’ve lost. It’s a difficult call; native English apples have fallen out of favour over the years, perhaps because supermarkets don’t like varieties such as Knobbed Russet, D’Arcy Spice and Peasgood Nonsuch whose charm resides in their odd, misshapen looks and challenging taste, preferring instead the more uniform delights of a Pink Lady, Jonagold or Granny Smith.
But, despite this, English apples continue to survive, finding expression in numerous back gardens, but also via individuals such as the poet Michael Hamburger who spent his last years preserving rare varieties of apple trees, cultivating them from seeds, and on estates such as Audley End (Victorian orchards) and the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Suffolk who grow over 2000 varieties of apple.
And then there’s Waitrose, the only UK supermarket actually to own and work their own apple orchards.The Leckford estate was bought by the John Lewis partnership in 1929 and extends over 4000 acres near the river Test in Hampshire, growing wheat, oats, rape seed and barley and providing grazing for a herd of 500 cows, as well as nearly 40 acres of apple and pear trees including, latterly, two vineyards.
Four years ago, Leckford embarked on a programme of restructuring their orchards, grubbing up the varieties that didn’t sell and replanting 23 acres with high-yielding Cox, including one field of red coxes, Braeburn, Bramley and Gala apples both for eating and to turn into cider and juice. Now uniform rows of small trees covered in picture-book red fruit fill the eye, waiting to be picked.
As the poet Robert Frost noted, apple picking is a tricky thing, ‘there were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall…’. A bruised apple is fit for nothing but cider and it’s especially hard to pick apples in the rain – your hand gets a kind of waxy sheen and the apples slip through your fingers and fall. During the season, Leckford takes on 20-25 specialist pickers who, like a party of men on paternity leave, move slowly along the rows wearing front-loading harnesses similar to a baby sling, every now and then carefully emptying their ‘babies’ into strategically placed wooden boxes. They have about 13,000 apple trees at Leckford and send about 20 tonnes of apples a year to Aspalls in Suffolk to make cider. All the rest not used for eating will be juiced. The eaters (about 60 tonnes this year) are sold in Waitrose stores and in their Leckford farm shop. In a good year, they’ll get about 3-400 tonnes of apples overall.
Eating an apple straight off the tree is a marvelous thing – the crispness, the zinging taste, the wonderful colour, a completely different experience from the sometimes disappointing fruit found in supermarkets.
As Waitrose has discovered, and we could emulate, it’s often best to grow your own. The UK climate, hazardous for things like tomatoes and walnuts, is broadly speaking well-disposed towards apples which is why we still have so many wonderful varieties, including, uniquely, the Bramley (the first Bramley seedling was grown from a pip planted in Nottingham in 1809 and, although it’s slowly dying from a honey fungus infection, is still bearing fruit, two centuries later) currently Europe’s only sour apple.
Apple Day, Saturday 21 October 2017. Visit commonground.org.uk for details