I am lucky to have an excellent farmers’ market closeby. Twice a month local producers gather on a Saturday morning in the village hall to sell their wares. One of my favourite stalls is a local organic fruit grower and at this time of year he has a great selection of apples.
The National Apple Register records over 6000 apple varieties that were grown between 1853 and 1968 but many of these will have been lost. Most supermarkets, however sell only a tiny selection of apples, maybe 10 varieties if you’re lucky and some of these such as ‘Fuji’ and ‘Golden Delicious’ aren’t even natives. Before the Second World War most parts of the country had their own apple varieties which were bred to cope with local conditions. Some places such as the south-east, the south-west and the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire had particularly strong traditions of apple growing. With names such as Cornish Gillyflower, Beauty of Bath, Peasgood Nonsuch and Monmouth Beauty these apples evoke an era when old orchards covered the countryside.
Unfortunately, intensive farming and cheap imported fruit has meant that up to 75% of our traditional orchards have been lost (figure from Natural England). Many orchards have been grubbed up to provide land for other crops, other orchards have become neglected and forgotten about. This is sad for many reasons. Traditional style orchards are incredibly important for biodiversity with the combination of trees, grass underneath and dead wood providing habitats for a wide number of species of birds, mammals, insects and even amphibians. Most importantly for consumers is the fruit that is produced. The taste from these unusual varieties is so much better than any apple I have bought from the supermarket. I’ve eaten apples that have had an orange flavour to them and some that taste of strawberries.
Old varieties do have their problems. Some don’t taste all that great and others are prone to pests and diseases. Cox’s Orange Pippin, for instance, is difficult to grow commercially because it is prone to diseases and needs a lot of chemicals to produce good quality fruit. Traditional orchards are no good for modern day commercial scale fruit production. The large trees make harvesting and maintenance difficult, whereas modern day orchards are designed for maximum yield and efficiency.
But if we look after those old orchards that are left and promote the small scale growing of heritage varieties maybe we can go some way to protecting our amazing array of apples.
For more information have a look at these sites iansturrockandsons for an excellent range of Welsh fruit varieties, www.brogdale.org – the National Fruit Collection website and www.orangepippin.com for a great list and descriptions of apple varieties.