This year - in our corner of Lincolnshire at least - it has been a wonderful year for apples.There has been a paucity of plums, a dearth of damsons and not even a solitary sloe graces our hedgerows but apples we have aplenty! I had never really rated apples before. My sister and her husband are enthusiastic proponents of the British apple but I think I may have fallen foul of too many an insipid Golden Delicious which - having been picked under-ripe to help it survive the journey from France - had rather deterred me from experimenting further. That and the scrumped Bramleys of my childhood, whose luscious appearance is belied with one bite of it's mouth-puckeringly sour flesh! I suppose that my interest has only really been awakened this year because I have noticed such an abundance of quite distinct varieties ripening on our allotments, as I have walked along the path above them with the dogs each day. It brought it home to me that even though I am a keen gardener I had absolutely no idea what varieties they were, nor when they were supposed to be harvested. The people who had planted them originally are long since gone and with them knowledge of the trees identity and how best to care for them. Subsequently the allotment trees are a neglected bunch and - if for no other reason - my newly-frugal self was not going to watch such bounty go to waste! It prompted me to begin making up for lost time by finding out as much as possible about our humble British apple.
Since 1950, almost two-thirds (57%) of England's orchard area has been lost, arguably due to a lack of economic viability and the subsequent grubbing up of trees to make way for more profitable crops. All over the country, trees that had been developed to suit the climatic conditions of distinct geographical areas have been destroyed and the cultural traditions that had developed alongside them have largely died out too. The game of apple bobbing - trying to catch an apple using only your teeth as it floats in a bowl of water - has probably only survived because it has become linked with Halloween but even then has become overshadowed by the pumpkin lantern, imported from America. Apple varieties can only be perpetuated by taking graft wood from each type of tree. You can grow apples from seed but they will produce an entirely new variety as the genetic make up - a combination of both the blossoming and pollinating parents - will be entirely unique. So once the last tree of a particular variety dies out then its line becomes extinct. Though some apples can pollinate themselves to a certain extent, they all produce more fruit with another tree nearby that flowers at the same time. Diploid trees cannot fruit without another tree to pollinate them - hence apple varieties are ascribed a number or letter to indicate their flowering period - and trees that require two other pollinators are known as triploids. Given such seemingly complex growing requirements, it's a wonder then that so many apple varieties have survived until today.
In 1990, the charity, Common Ground, held it's first Apple Day to bring to the public's attention the importance of conserving those orchards that remain. It uses the apple "as a symbol of the physical, cultural and genetic diversity we should not let slip away". Today - October 21st - has become known as 'Apple Day' countrywide and is now celebrating it's nineteenth year. Apple-related events are held all over Britain during September and October and many offer the opportunity to have your own apple varieties identified. We took thirteen pairs of apples along to our nearest event at Wragby, near Lincoln, at the beginning of October. Identifiers usually ask for two typical specimens and some for a sample of foliage as well so we duly bagged and labelled our hoard to avoid mix-ups on the day. We felt a little guilty taking so many but had contacted the organisers in advance to check that this would be ok. Those doing the identifying came from the charity, East of England Apples and Orchards Project, which specialises in varieties bred within the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Essex and Hertfordshire. Events such as these provide them with information about what varieties are surviving where within the region but also provide an opportunity to chance upon fruit of those varieties thought to be lost. When our turn came we were delighted to find that we had twelve different types of apple and amongst them two old Lincolnshire varieties. They were a mixture of dessert, cookers and dual-purpose types (those that sweeten with age) with some early and some late varieties. The British apple season actually begins with varieties such as Discovery in July/August, through early desserts, like Worcester Pearmain, to late types that have good keeping qualities like Laxton's Superb. Kept under the right conditions, certain kinds can still be eaten until the following May. It certainly makes you think twice about buying antipodean apples for most of the year with their accompanying carbon size nines!
While we were at the event we also watched apples being crushed in a press to make juice, bought some quince, discovered which butterfly likes to sun itself in our pear tree and met a lady who would like to run a course in basket-making in our town. Apart from our purchase of half a dozen quince - and, of course, the petrol - it cost us nothing and made a really interesting day out. There are still a number of events on Common Ground's website coming up this weekend and beyond across the country; if you like the idea - and particulary if you have unknown apples of your own - this link will take you to the Apple Day Events page. Not all events offer the identification service so check with individual organisers before travelling.
Once our apples had been identified, we were free to bring them all home again and rather than waste them - which rather defeated the purpose of having them identified in the first place - we have steadily been working our way through the 'eaters' and are only now progressing to the cookers and dual-purpose varieties. The lovely man who identified our apples for us also made us a list to bring home naming each variety, it's place of origin and approximate date of breeding and when each variety was ready for picking. This has provided an excellent starting point for further research of my own into the varieties we have. Pictured above is an Ellison's Orange, named after the Reverend Ellison of Bracebridge Heath, on the outskirts of Lincoln. It should have been picked in September and we had to collect windfalls to take with us on the day. A dessert apple, it really does look like this in real life with its wonderful tiger stripes of deep red on a lighter red background. The flesh is quite soft and it is supposed to make a good juicing apple. Just as well, really, as I have a bowlful of further windfalls sitting underneath my dining room table!
The Egremont Russet possibly needs no introduction as it is grown commercially and is probably one of the better known British varieties. It's rough skin and golden colour are more akin to a pear than an apple and it has a drier texture than most dessert apples. We like to eat them with Lincolnshire Poacher smoked cheese after our evening meal and Hector is very fond of this variety, too. After the strong winds recently, many from the allotment tree had fallen, so I picked what was left on the tree. We have a very useful picker, which we bought to pick our pears last year, that consists of a bag held open by a rigid ring of plastic with protruding 'fingers'. Between two of the fingers is a sharp metal blade which acts to cut through the stalk of the apple/pear, allowing it to fall into the safety of the bag. This is attached to an extendable metal pole which allows you to reach where ladders can't. As I was picking one of the russets, I accidentally knocked a neighbouring one off and it hit the floor and bruised badly. Cultivating my maxim of 'waste not, want not', I ate the unbruised half there and then. It was quite delicious (even without the cheese)!
According to Laxton Brothers catalogue from the early 1900's, Lord Lambourne, shown above, is the best apple they ever produced. Many of their other apples are preceded by the prefix 'Laxton's' - such as Laxton's Superb, which we also have on the allotments - but for some reason this one is different. It is indeed a wonderful variety. A very large dessert apple, we almost mistook it for a cooker even though we had been told by other allotment holders how wonderful it tasted. Two trees grow next to each other, so we took fruit from each, hence thirteen pairs of apples and twelve varieties, as I mentioned earlier. Lucky is the chap who rents this plot to have doubled up on his good fortune!
As for cookers, we have several late-keeping varieties. There's Lane's Prince Albert,(pictured above) with it's squeaky skin and an enviable reputation for juicing and Newton Wonder, which is the traditional apple for mincemeat and also makes a mean apple sauce. We know this because we tried it yesterday with pork chops and we didn't need to add any sugar, either. Annie Elizabeth was once very popular for stewing, as it's 'quarters never break', but fell out of favour with the rise of the ubiquitous Bramley. We have a Bramley, too, but this one is a crimson type that turns very red as it ripens (see below).
As we become more aware of the enjoyment of eating seasonally, it would seem to have health benefits too. The Ribston Pippin, a variety bred in Yorkshire, has more vitamin C in one apple than is contained in a whole pound of Golden Delicious. Also, when you are about to eat an apple it is better to leave the skin on. Apple skin contains five times more antioxidants - which help to remove free radicals from the bloodstream - than the flesh. Farmer's markets are a good place to get hold of British varieties to try and with a bumper harvest becoming available now there has never been a better time to do so. I'm hoping to add some apple recipes to the Tried and Tested page quite soon and also to add details of a very informative book on apples to the book list.
Until then, whatever you're doing, I hope you have a ...