Good Food Blog
Forgotten fruitsPosted at 11:15AM, 19 August 2008 by Carol Wilson - Food writer
Apples are the most popular of our native fruits which we've enjoyed in Britain since antiquity. Chaucer mentioned roast apples cooked with sugar candy and galingale (a fragrant spice similar to ginger), while baked stuffed apples, apple pies and puddings are among the great triumphs of British cooking; not forgetting, of course, deliciously sweet and sticky toffee apples, loved by generations of children.
You'd never guess that we have such a great heritage by looking at the apple varieties sold by most supermarkets
Britain has around two thousand varieties of flavoursome apples, many of which date back hundreds of years; but you'd never guess that we have such a great heritage by looking at the apple varieties sold by most supermarkets. Their buyers choose fruit for its long shelf life; apples must be blemish-free and picture-perfect in shape and size, which, with traditional varieties, is impossible to achieve. That's why only about 30 varieties are grown commercially and, sadly, why many of Britain's old orchards, particularly in traditional apple-growing areas such as Kent, Somerset and Worcestershire, have long since disappeared.
Supermarkets sell most of the nation's apples and although you'll probably find Bramley, Cox and perhaps Egremont Russet, the market is dominated by imports, from New Zealand, France, Chile, China and Argentina, for instance.
It would be a disaster if our traditional apples survived only as a niche product. Fortunately a growing network of conservation groups, specialist nurseries and conservation-minded growers around the country, (including HRH Prince Charles, who has purchased 1,000 rare apple varieties to plant at Duchy Home Farm in Gloucestershire) are set on preserving old-fashioned varieties such as St Edmund's Pippin, Maid of Kent, Kidd's Orange, Winter Pearmain, (mentioned by John Gerard in his famous Herball of 1597) Ashmead's Kernel (first grown in 1700) and the delightfully named Sheep's Nose, Sops in Wine, Cornish Honey Pin and Bascombe Mystery.
You're not likely to find any of these in your local supermarket as they're not available in large quantities. But wouldn't we all prefer an apple worth eating, that's crunchy, juicy and full of flavour? Apples with an astonishing diversity of textures, colours and flavours? Pine Apple Russet, for example, tastes just like pineapple, while Devonshire Quarrenden has a distinct strawberry flavour. Brogdale Horticultural Trust in Kent houses the Apple Collection, believed to be the most comprehensive authenticated collection of varieties in the world.
I've found that farmers' markets and fruit farms are the best sources of old-fashioned varieties. Don't forget to store them carefully by wrapping loosely in newspaper and keeping in a dry airy place, such as a shed or garage.
Have you come across any rare apple varieties?