Around this time in late October, many places around the UK are celebrating Apple Day. It’s a commemoration launched by the charity “Common Ground” back in 1990, to celebrate “apples, orchards and local distinctiveness”. We have good reason to celebrate: the climate in the British Isles is particularly suitable for producing good flavoured apples, and also we have an amazing heritage of apple varieties. The incredible species Malus domestica has over 5,000 named varieties, and many thousand more un-named: essentially every apple pip if planted would result in a new variety. Heritage varieties with names like Ashmead’s Kernel, Ribston Pippin and Adam’s Pearmain are now becoming more widely known and treasured for their texture, aroma and flavor. Unfortunately you are unlikely to find them on the shelves of your supermarket, as the global apple supply market is dominated by four apple varieties of Antipodean origin: Gala, Braeburn, Jazz and Cripp’s Pink (marketed as “Pink Lady”). These four and their close relatives have the advantage of being good, consistent yielders and do not bruise easily during transport. They also have a consistent texture and flavor, week after week, that many older varieties struggle to maintain. They are not all grown on the other side of the world: Gala makes up over 20% of the UK apple crop, and the area is increasing as varieties like Cox decline.
Part of the reason that we see only a few varieties on sale is our changing shopping habits – we mostly shop at the supermarkets, who are all tied in to global supply chains so that apples are available year-round. The old high street greengrocers are mostly gone, though a good street market stall may have a box or two of some different apples for sale. Farm shops are another place to look for interesting varieties.
Last Saturday we had an Apple Day celebration in our village hall. Over twenty different varieties were on sale, and a further twenty or so on display, from the odd looking “Codling” to the “Bloody ploughman” – the giant cooking apple “Edward VII” to the diminutive “Katy”. If we lose these varieties we lose something of our national heritage, and the best way to make sure they stay around is to eat them! So ask around for something a bit different, see if you can find a variety with an odd sounding name, buy a pound or two, and have a bite.