I can’t think of a better example of the need for local food supplies than apples.
As I write, in October 2021, we are experiencing a number of issues with the supply of different food types that make a mockery of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy which claimed that our supermarket dominated food chain had proved its resilience during the Covid pandemic. Lack of workers to pick crops and process meats means that we have been warned to expect shortages of such “essentials” as Pig in Blankets this Christmas. Writing in the Telegraph, Xanthe Clay has helpfully given instructions for self-assembly. What is the world coming to?
The supermarkets are further struggling with the shortage of lorry drivers and the just-in-time supply chain has resulted in many gaps on the shelves. No wonder they have had little time to worry about the British apple season, now at its peak, which currently has no representation in Tesco’s, and plastic bags of imported Gala hiding behind the Duchy Organic label in Waitrose.
The website of The British Apples and Pears association is one of the saddest examples of promoting British fruit that I have ever seen. Try looking at www.britishapplesandpears.co.uk/apple-varieties. Seventeen varieties are illustrated – all as highly polished as something the Evil Queen might have given to Snow White to tempt her to eat the poisoned apple. Looking at these pictures of apples is like looking at someone who has had too much cosmetic surgery – it gives me the creeps! Finding a basket of these fruits in a hotel room is anything but welcoming, it generates immediate homesickness.
With the exception of Worcester Pearmain, the varieties fall into three main categories: the same old commercial favourites (e.g., Cox/Bramley/Egremont Russet); non-native varieties (e.g., Braeburn/Gala) or new (and trademarked) varieties (e.g., Zari/Rubens/Kanzi). This is what happens if you have to supply the whole country. The treasures in our 2300+ strong repertoire are as if they never existed.
This rock-bottom commercial situation ought, surely, to signal a resurgence in home-grown apples and short, local supply chains? No-one who has ever eaten an apple straight from the tree would think of looking in a supermarket to buy apples. With the added impetus of improving carbon storage and air quality everyone is aware of the need to plant trees, and why shouldn’t many of these be fruit trees?
With the caution that you don’t buy fruit trees in a garden centre any more than you would buy apples in a supermarket, there are many options for planting an apple tree. Growing on half-standard rootstock is now the norm, you actually have to seek hard if you want to plant a tree that will grow to the traditional full height. Half-standard trees are perfect in a garden setting. They have turned out to be much longer lived than originally feared, and their reduced height makes them easier to prune and to harvest.
Which variety to choose?
This is where my caution against buying from a garden centre shouts loudest. They will be stocked with a very limited range of varieties. First, I would suggest you research which varieties are local to you. They have proved themselves to be suited to your soil and climate. Now is the perfect time to taste some local varieties as smaller orchards may well be hosting Apple Day events. “Apple Day” was an initiative begun in 1990 by Common Ground and their website continues to provide a wealth of information about orchards, varieties and nurseries on a regional basis – https://www.commonground.org.uk/an-apples-orchards-gazetteer
There is another reason I hesitate to recommend specific varieties to plant, and that reason is biodiversity – we have over 2300 to chose from so why would I single out just a handful? The reason that many older varieties have been abandoned is purely that they don’t fit the commercial model – they may not look perfect, be medium sized, or be prone to biennial cropping, but we can live with these things at a domestic level, especially if the compensation is better flavour. Instead, below I give the general characteristics of types of apples to help you decide on your needs.
- Dual-purpose apple
Britain is unique in having bred a range of apples specifically for cooking, other countries use dessert apples for everything. Pretty much any apple can be cooked when it is under-ripe then eaten as it ripens but some are especially known for this. They tend to come into season in September and then ripen sufficiently for eating in October. If you can only plant one tree a dual-purpose apple might be useful. If the apple contains some tannin too it might also be used for cider. Tom Putt is one such example, known as a “cottagers apple” because it fulfils three purposes. Dual purpose apples work well when eaten raw in savoury dishes like a salad.
- Cooking apples
Bramley dominates the market; in fact many people would struggle to name another cooking apple. Bramley apples are very high in acidity, which means that when cooked the flesh disintegrates to a fluffy pulp. This is great for something like apple sauce, but not so good if you are trying to hold it intact, either whole when baked or in slices on a tart. For this you need less acidity. The dual-purpose apples work well here early in the season, but what about later? Try Catshead, Annie Elizabeth or Newton Wonder to name just a few.
If you want the acidity of a Bramley (and it does mean the apple taste comes through no matter what you add to it) the Dumelow’s Seedling is an older alternative.
Whilst an apple eaten straight from the tree is a wonderful thing, as a general rule the best keepers are those that ripen very late. This means you will probably need to pick them sometime in October, before the winds bring them down, as you cannot keep an apple that has fallen.
Picked and stored carefully in an unheated room (e.g., shed or garage) you should be happily eating apples until the end of January by which time the texture is likely to be going soft and you will probably want to cook them up to finish.
Practically all cooking apples store well, and you might still be happily using these in March.
- Dessert Apples
If you have plenty of room, you will probably want to plant more than one so that you can stagger eating across the full season. Otherwise consider when you will be most likely to want to eat them.
Early season – the earliest apples ripen in August but be aware that their season is very short and early apples do not keep so it is possible to go on holiday and return to find every apple already fallen and rotting under the tree! If you are around to catch them at their brief point of perfection you will need to be able to use the entire crop quickly. Juicing is a common use of early apples.
Second early – you have a little longer to enjoy these apples, perhaps throughout the month of September, depending on how far north you live. For example, James Grieve is a second early of Scottish origin which is quickly ripe enough for eating when grown in the South but is almost always considered a cooking apple on its home ground. Worcester Pearmain is another old variety with a wonderful strawberry note and colouration to the flesh.
Mid-season – in addition to the dual-purpose apples already mentioned above, late September heralds some dessert apples for eating in early autumn. Lord Lambourne and Sunset are two of my favourites.
Peak season – the apples are becoming longer lasting and fuller in flavour as October progresses. Blenheim Orange is an old favourite that is too variable in its cropping for commercial growers. The nuttiness of russeted apples makes them perfect for eating with cheese and there are far more to choose from than the commercial Egremont.
Late season/keepers – these are the apples that rarely ripen sufficiently for eating straight from the tree but will see you through to January. Ashmead’s Kernel, Claygate Pearmain, D’Arcy Spicy and Cornish Gillyflower are just some of the names that fall into this category.
The concept of Community Orchards was championed by Common Ground and the time is ripe to plant some more.
The Community Orchard in our village was planted 25 years ago, and these are some of the points we have learnt:
- What is the purpose of the orchard? It can, and probably will, fulfil more than one purpose, but stating and prioritising these at the outset is useful if uses conflict in the future. Here are some possibilities: Wildlife (best served by planting a traditional orchard of full-sized trees with the orchard floor grazed by sheep); Community Events; Local Food/Drink (perhaps a mother orchard for local varieties)
- Ongoing maintenance: there needs to be a long-term body to manage the orchard, but the costs are on-going, and you need to consider how to cover this, e.g., a memorial garden where people to pay for a tree and its future maintenance, sale of fruit or produce from the fruit.
- How will the harvest be allocated? If it is not all to be used to cover on-going costs, how will it be shared? It can be difficult to strike a balance that is fair and ensures that fruit is not wasted. It may affect you decision about which varieties to plant.
- Longevity – if you have planted a traditional orchard, it will be 10 years before there is really much fruit to harvest. Those who were originally involved in its planting may no longer be around and you will need to plan how you will maintain interest for decades to come.
In Blagdon, the Community Orchard is owned and managed by the Parish Council and we have a separate group, Blagdon Orchard Group, for promoting and using orchard fruit generally. After our first decade, we were amazed at the wide range of interests that were encompassed by this umbrella and decided to publish a book documenting this. You can buy a copy (£9.95) by contacting me via this website.
One of the projects undertaken by Blagdon Orchard Group was the planting of an edible hedgerow. Farmers are now being “rewarded” to plant new hedges, although the reward is minimal. Nonetheless, new hedges are being planted, and it might be possible to ensure that these include fruit and or nut trees by donating the trees where the hedge will have public access. There are local varieties of plums, damsons and cherries throughout the U.K. so if you have a local speciality this makes and obvious choice. As with Community Orchards, bear in mind that these trees will take a long time to bear fruit, but the maintenance will be covered by the owner/farmer.
To return to the issue of local supply, remember that you can still achieve this before any new planting bears fruit simply by taking an active interest in what is already being grown. There are still independent orchards producing with minimal spraying and these need support. Additionally, some people have more fruit growing in their garden than they can use and may actually be grateful for someone offering to pick it. We raised some money for our group this way, just picking fruit and taking it to be sold via a local shop.
The future of our apples is very much local – resolve never to buy them from a supermarket again!