The humble apple is without a doubt one of the most popular of all fruit we eat today, and it certainly has some diversity, with at least 2,500 known and named varieties estimated to have been in existence at one time or another, ranging from those to eat straight out of hand, to apples for cooking, or for making cider, and much more.
Sadly, they are no longer all with us today; supermarkets and green grocers typically sell a subset of a particular 20 to 30 varieties at most, such as Gala or Braeburn - you know the usuals. However, for a few short weeks at the end of summer they start out with English grown. It's pretty easy to pick up some Cox's Orange Pippin, and Bramley are a dead cert all year round. But surely these aren't the only two?
There are in fact over a thousand varieties of "English" apple, but only about 15 of these are grown commercially. If you're lucky, you might find Discovery, Worcestershire Permain, and perhaps a Spartan, but in all but the specialist places you're unlikely to find anymore. This may not be the same in years to come however. There is currently a definite upsurge in demand for English apples, and the supply is slowly starting to catch up.
Of course, this article isn't the first to highlight this problem, and the same things get said every year - and quite rightly so. Unless we keep pressing for it and moving forward, all the progress lost so far will be lost, and we'll be back where we started.
Some supermarkets, to their credit, are making a concerted effort to bring English apples back. But wasn't it the supermarkets who drove English apples out of the market to begin with? Well, yes and no. While it's true that cheaper apples imported from abroad has helped gradually push English apples from the market in recent years, we can't lay all the blame at their door.
Naturally cheaper apples imported into the country allows for price drops for consumers, which certainly doesn't hurt their sales! Also, many of the varieties commercially grown, such as Golden Delicious or Gala, have been bred to the point of commercial perfection; not only are they quite tasty to eat, they also store well, and are generally cosmetically more acceptable than many old varieties of apple. If you gave a Worcestershire Permain apple to someone who knew little about apples, and got them to compare it to a Gala apple, most people would pick the Gala as the better apple on pure cosmetics alone, since they would think something was wrong with an apple that was shaped like a pear! It's no wonder that two thirds of apple orchards in this country have disappeared since 1970.
The push for lack of diversity in our apples is not a recent move; as far back as 1829, discussions were taking place of the overly long list of apples available. The Royal Horticultural Society noted in their catalogue in this year, "our list is far more extensive than useful (1,200 varieties), but no significant reduction can be made until a public declaration of the sorts which are undeserving of further cultivation." It was also noted that this list was growing almost daily.
Of course, the natural end result of people moving towards a limited number of apples is that the ones not selling would have their trees uprooted and replaced by varieties that are selling, and this relatively simple and destructive act has led us to where we are now. Enter the Brogdale Horticultural Trust.
Brogdale is the home of the natural fruit collections in England, the largest collection of varieties of fruit trees in the world - collectively they have over different 3,500 varieties of fruit trees, bushes, nuts and vines grown in 150 acres of the Kent countryside. Within this collection they have preserved over 2,300 varieties of apple - more than probably anyone in the country can name! The collection is so extensive that it is an internationally recognised genetic resource, and they have even gone so far as to start cataloguing all their varieties on their website.
The National Fruit Collections were started in London in the early 1800s by the RHS, and the fruit trees established at RHS Wisley in Surrey in 1921. They were moved from Surrey to Brogsdale in 1954, and have been growing ever since. The collection is part owned by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), and its goal is to conserve diversity within crop species, especially important since increasingly fewer farmers are maintaining varieties. Indeed, many of their varieties of apple are no longer grown anywhere else in the world.
Even this is now under threat however - the Brogdale trust was recently sold, and the fruit collections are being sold off in chunks to private buyers.
Not all of the varieties maintained at Brogdale could be grown commercially, and many you would not want to, since some are inedible. So why should we keep all of them? To put it simply, to maintain a bank of genetic diversity. An increasing problem with bananas (see our feature on The Future of Bananas) is lack of genetic diversity, which makes it easy for a disease to quickly wipe out entire plantations; with little genetic diversity to work with it's hard to combat these problems. By maintaining a large genetic bank for apples, something like this should never affect apples. There are other benefits too, such as the ability to breed new varieties using older ones.
Some varieties at Brogdale are inedible, such as Knobbly Russet, thought to be one of the ugliest apples, it also has a sour taste, or Faversham Creek, an apple typically found in salt marshes and as such is very salty. Excellent varieties no longer grown commercially do exist also, such as Blenheim Orange, which was for a long time a traditional present in Christmas Stockings and is very sweet and cooks well. For a little variety, there is George's Red Apple, which when cut through, has red flesh.
One event designed to bring English apples back to the fore is the national Apple Week which usually runs in the last 2 weeks in October - while it's only a "week", it seems to stretch to two in lots of places! This year, the bulk of the activity is centred around the 21st and 22nd of October, with many places carrying out tasting days and much more.
So what can we do to help? Buy English of course, while we can! Several supermarkets are already committed to providing more English apples, but until there is a significant demand for English apples, change will be slow. So enjoy the English apples we have now, and how knows, in 20-30 years time, maybe they will finally reign again and outsell cheaper foreign imported fruit, and we'll see the return of some old classics that places like the Brogdale trust have saved from extinction and reintroduced into our lives.