The English Apple Harvest
Although Cox’s Orange Pippin and Bramley’s Seedling are deservedly the most popular and successful of our apples, there are numerous other varieties, each with their own special qualities of flavour, appearance, texture and shelf life.
No fruit is more to our English taste than the apple’, E. A. Bunyard, an authority on fruit-growing, declared. It is undoubtedly true that the apple is the most typically British fruit, compared with, say, pears, peaches and cherries, all of which have a touch of the exotic about them.
A successful commercial apple must be heavy cropping and reasonably resistant to the more serious pests and diseases. It must store well and withstand rough handling. Most importantly, apples must have consumer appeal and look attractive in the shops. Dessert apples need a good flavour and texture, and cooking apples must have acceptable culinary qualities.
All these stringent requirements mean that out of the many hundreds of varieties available only a limited number are grown commercially. This narrowing of the selection is inevitable, but a pity, because it means that a number of delicious varieties such as Ashmead’s Kernel, D’Arcy Spice, Orleans Reinette, St Edmund’s Russet, Sunset and Laxton’s Fortune, to name just a few, are seldom found in the greengrocer’s or supermarket. You occasionally see these varieties in farm shops, but generally they are only grown in gardens. This does not mean that commercially grown varieties are tasteless — far from it : Cox’s Orange Pippin will always be ranked as a superb dessert variety, and Bramley’s Seedling is usually thought to be the best cooking apple in the world. These two varieties between them occupy the bulk of the commercial acreage.
The apple harvest stretches from July to November, with the main activity in September and early October. The early cooking varieties are the first to be picked. They are not ripe in the purest sense, but they are large enough to be cooked, in late July. The sugar added during cooking compensates for the absence of natural sugars which would develop during ripening.
There are no hard and fast rules separating cookers from eaters. Some varieties, such as Newton Wonder and Monarch, are used mainly for cooking but can also be eaten and enjoyed as they ripen by those who prefer sharp tasting fruits. Conversely James Grieve, an attractive dessert apple when ripe, can be used for cooking as soon as it becomes large enough.
Chemically, ripe dessert varieties are relatively high in sugars, while good cookers contain more acids. A variety both rich in sugars and high in natural acids has that special quality — flavour, and Cox is the outstanding example of an apple with this combination.
Where do the varieties come, from? It is easy to raise a new variety of apple. All you have to do is sow some pips from the next one you eat and raise a seedling to the fruiting stage, and you have a new variety, which you can name after yourself if you wish. But apples do not breed true from seeds and the chances of the new variety being equal to, or even better than, existing ones are slim.
However, over the years, gifted and green-fingered amateurs have raised superb new varieties, a feat best typified by Mr Cox, a retired brewer from Slough, who in 1825 sowed some pips from a fruit of Ribston Pippin, and produced his unique Orange Pippin.
Most worthwhile new varieties today come about as the result of work by plant breeders at the research stations, particularly those at East Malling in Kent and Long Ashton near Bristol. East Malling has recently produced Suntan and Kent, while workers at Long Ashton are concentrating on treating existing varieties with irradiation to induce mutations, a number of which look promising. Other mutations from existing varieties have been planted because they have brighter coloured skins and therefore higher consumer appeal.
Although most of our apple varieties are home produced, there are some popular foreign ones, such as Golden Delicious from America, which has transformed apple growing on the European mainland and is now planted on a smaller scale in the British Isles.
Whatever the origin of a new variety it is usually first tested at the Ministry of Agriculture’s National Fruit Trials at Brogdale in Kent.
Picking begins in July with Early Victoria, known in some areas as Emneth Early. The fruits swell quickly, encouraged by the farmer who prunes the trees severely in winter to reduce the number of blossom buds, then thins out the surplus fruits as soon as they set so that the energies of the tree are concentrated on a relatively small number of fruits. Grenadier follows, filling the gap until the main and dual purpose cookers take over. The major cooking apple is Bramley’s Seedling, raised in Nottinghamshire in 1876 and still being planted in large quantities today. Apart from its outstanding cooking quality, Bramley has a long storage life, especially in controlled atmosphere storage, and it can be found on the market until May.
Early Victoria, Grenadier and Bramley constitute the great bulk of supplies of culinary apples, but others can be found locally, including Lord Derby and Lane’s Prince Albert, both reliable varieties but in the second rank in commercial terms. Arthur Turner is worth growing for the sake of itsalone, and Howgate Wonder produces very large fruits.
The first dessert apple to reach the shops in any quantity is a relative newcomer, Discovery, a bright red fruit of good quality, which is picked from August onwards. Towards the end of the month the red and juicy Tydeman’s Early appears. It is a cross between Worcester Pearmain and an American variety. The long-established Worcester follows soon afterwards; at one time there was a tendency to pick Worcester too early, but it has a good flavour if picked when ripe. By September James Grieve, a very pleasant apple, should be ready. You often see it among Cox orchards where it is planted as a pollinator.
Egremont Russet is one of the best of the russet skinned varieties which are generally crisp and well flavoured. It keeps well, even out of store, and can be eaten over a long period. Cox’s Orange Pippin is picked towards the end of September and is ready for eating from October onwards. Most of the Cox harvest goes into store, and the modern fruit grower can control both temperature and atmosphere so that the apples keep in good condition until spring if necessary. Cox varies a good deal in skin colour, according to, season and state of maturity.
Laxton’s Superb was bred from Cox, and it looks similar, although it keeps longer. Spartan is a new, increasingly popular variety. Crispin, bred from a Japanese variety and Idared are two new varieties that can be kept for a long time, perhaps until the start of next season’s harvest, thus providing the possibility, when supplies are sufficient and markets stable, of English apples being available all year round.