Apple Days have become a popular autumn celebration across the UK and are a fantastic opportunity to try some of the country’s more unusual apple varieties, says Penny Bunting
Apples are one of the UK’s favourite fruits, and are at the top of the five-a-day list for many people. But did you know that you could eat a different variety of British apple every day for a couple of years – and you still wouldn’t have tasted them all?
Wander along the fruit aisle of any supermarket, though, and you’ll be lucky to spot more than five different types of apple. Granny Smiths, Braeburns, and Gala are easy to come by, but if you tried asking for a traditional British apple – Ashmead’s Kernel, or Egremont Russet, for example – you would most likely be met with blank stares.
It’s estimated that around 70 per cent of our supermarket apples are imported, too – sometimes from as far away as South Africa or New Zealand. One reason for this is that in the UK we are just not producing as many apples as we used to – around two-thirds of our orchards have disappeared since 1950.
This is bad news for the nation’s food security – and it has an impact on wildlife, too. Orchards are vital habitats that support a wide variety of wildlife. Great spotted woodpeckers, fieldfares, dormice and pipistrelle bats are often found in traditional orchards, and bumblebees and butterflies are attracted to the blossoms.
But biodiversity isn’t just about the birds and the bees – the trees themselves also need protecting. As newer species become more popular – a result of their improved disease resistance and the promise of bumper fruit production – some of our older varieties of fruit tree are in danger of disappearing. And this would be a real shame, especially as some British apples have been around for hundreds of years.
Birds, bees and butterflies: orchards are brilliant for biodiversity
Apples at Chatsworth
The good news is that, in recent years, there has been a huge surge in interest in growing traditional apple varieties.
One place that is taking positive steps towards protecting our apple tree heritage is Chatsworth, in the Peak District, Derbyshire.
One of the most famous stately homes in England, Chatsworth is home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and has been passed down through 16 generations of the Cavendish family. The house is believed to have been the inspiration for Pemberley, in Jane Austen’s much-loved book Pride and Prejudice – it’s thought that the author stayed in nearby Bakewell when she wrote the novel, which was first published 200 years ago in 1813. Chatsworth has also featured in several films, including Pride and Prejudice, filmed in 2005 and starring Keira Knightley.
The kitchen gardens at Chatsworth cover some three acres of the estate and provide all the fruit, vegetables and cut flowers for the Cavendish family, with excess produce being sold at the award-winning Chatsworth Farm Shop, a couple of miles away at the village of Pilsley.
There are more than 100 fruit trees planted in various locations throughout the gardens, as well as raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, currants and grapes. The main orchard, sheltered from the harsh Derbyshire winter winds by tall, immaculately clipped hedges, was planted during the 1980s and contains more than 20 trees. It is here that many of the estate’s heritage apple trees can be found.
Derbyshire varieties feature strongly: Lamb’s Seedling, Beeley Pippin and Newton Wonder are three Derbyshire varieties that are thriving.
The original Newton Wonder was found around 1870 by William Taylor, as a seedling growing in the thatch of the Hardinge Arms pub, King’s Newton, Derbyshire. Taylor grafted the seedling and grew it on in the pub’s garden, where it survived until 1940. A large cooking apple, which keeps well until Easter, the Newton Wonder was traditionally used at Christmas, in stuffing for turkeys and mincemeat.
The Beeley Pippin tree, with its spreading, blossom-laden branches, takes pride of place in the centre of Chatsworth’s orchard. Beeley Pippins have been grown locally since 1880, when the apple was first produced in the nearby village of Beeley, part of the Chatsworth estate, by Rev C Sculthorpe. One of the earliest orchard trees to come into flower, it produces an apple with pink flushed skin and a rich aromatic flavour.
Non-Derbyshire varieties in the orchard include Lord Derby – a green cooking apple dating from 1875, that despite its name is actually from Cheshire – Blenheim Orange, and, of course, Duke of Devonshire.
Beeley Pippin apple tree in the orchard at Chatsworth
As well as the orchard, there are fruit trees dotted throughout the kitchen garden. Apples and pears, grown as espaliers, offer protection to vegetables in the brick-built raised beds. In the centre of each large bed there is a Bramley apple tree – the vegetables are grown in rows radiating out from the tree, producing an eye-catching, edible display.
New apple trees – including heritage varieties like Beeley Pippin – are created for the estate by grafting. With so many of England’s old apple varieties already lost, this sort of propagation is essential to ensure the survival of existing heritage varieties.
The astonishing diversity of British apple varieties is recognised every autumn on Apple Day – an annual celebration on 21 October, first launched by Common Ground in 1990. With hundreds of events held throughout the UK during the whole of October in market places, villages, National Trust properties and community orchards, Apple Day raises awareness of the importance of orchards, celebrates local food and brings communities together to enjoy apple-related activities.
Apple Days vary from place to place, but you’re likely to find lots of opportunities to taste and buy different varieties, and well as stock up on homemade apple products such as chutneys and jams. There’s often an apple press available so you can have a go at making your own fresh apple juice. And children’s activities abound, with games like apple bobbing and competitions to produce the longest apple peel or most creative apple sculpture!
Get along to an Apple Day and see if you can track down some fantastic British heritage apples. Here are eight to try:
Ashmead’s Kernel. An often lumpy and misshapen apple, but keeps well and has a remarkable, distinctive flavour – some say it tastes of pear drops.
Beauty of Bath. An early cropping variety, dating from Victorian times, which is best eaten straight from the tree.
Egremont Russet. A variety that’s over 100 years old, with rough, russet skin and a sweet nutty flavour.
Pitmaston Pineapple. Originating in the West Midlands in the late 1700s, this small, yellow apple tastes unmistakably of pineapples.
Cox’s Orange Pippin. Possibly England’s most famous apple, dating from the 19th century – and a variety you can often find in the supermarket.
Blenheim Orange. Dating from 1740, can be eaten fresh or cooked. Has an orange and red-streaked skin and a nutty flavour.
Newton Wonder. A large green and red cooker that crops heavily and stores well.
Ribston Pippin. Originated in North Yorkshire around 1700 – one of England’s oldest apple varieties. Has a pear-like flavour.
Green Adventures September 2015