There was a time before supermarkets when the diversity of fruit and vegetables was much wider. Although nowadays you can walk into most food shops and you’re able to buy exotic produce from around the world, from avocado and mango to bananas and passionfruit, the number of different types of potato or lettuce or plum will amount to only a handful at most. That loss of food diversity is seen most keenly perhaps in the number of different types of apple you can choose. There are perhaps five, maybe six, types of apple that are widely available such as ‘Granny Smith’, ‘Fuji’, ‘Golden Delicious’ and ‘Pink Lady’, but did you know that there are over 2,000 different apple varieties and cultivars at Britain’s National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent? Two thousand!
Decline of Apples
So why are there so many different apples but so few available at supermarkets? Well, the supply chains that allow supermarkets to function rely on produce that can withstand travel, not bruise easily and have good storage qualities. It’s also important that commercial growers can grow fruit on a large scale and pick it easily. Taste is very low on the priority list. Britain’s old, traditional apple orchards have also suffered, with many of them being destroyed to make way for land development or to grow more lucrative crops.
Apple growing used to be an important part of the British countryside, not just producing fruit to eat but also for making apple juice and cider. Since the late 18th century apple growers had started to make new apple cultivars by taking parent plants with particular traits they liked and cross pollinating them. These new cultivars would be distinct to particular areas and would have been bred to cope with the local climate.
For instance, apples growing in Wales and western Britain would have been able bred to tolerate high rainfall. Northern and Scottish apples would be selected for their hardiness to cold temperatures and apples from parts of south-eastern England would have been able to cope with milder conditions and less rainfall. This wide genetic diversity was not only important for producing healthy fruit, there was a wider variety of flavours and apples with wonderful evocative names such as ‘Beauty of Bath’, ‘Bloody Ploughman’ and ‘Peasgood Nonsuch’.
Finding Heritage Apples
It can be tricky to find heritage apples nowadays, but if you have a farmers’ market nearby, a farm shop or a local orchard it’s likely that they will have unusual varieties for you to buy at this time of year. In the UK, places such as the Royal Horticultural Society gardens and National Trust gardens with orchards have apple celebrations in October that give you the chance to taste apples such as ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’, ‘Dog’s Snout’ and ‘Cornish Gillyflower’ among others.
I’ve been lucky enough to try lots of different ones – my favourites are the russets, such as ‘Egremont Russet’, which are known for their rough skin and slightly tart flavour.
This passion and interest for heritage fruit isn’t just a British thing. Dedicated growers in Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy and France are also protecting old apple varieties along with other traditional orchard fruit.
Specialist nurseries also cater to those who want to grow their own in their garden or on their allotment – this is a great way to help to keep these old fruits alive. Choosing a cultivar that’s from your local area will not only mean it will grow well for you, but it’ll also continue that historic connection between food and location that is being eroded by the increasing homogenisation of food as a result of intensive agriculture and the way we shop.
Om Louise Curley
Louise is a horticulturalist, garden writer and author of the award-winning book The Cut Flower Patch. She’s passionate about the power of plants to make us feel happy and is an advocate for organic gardening and encouraging wildlife into gardens.Get to know Louise Curley
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