The forbidden fruit: are we eating and cooking the wrong apples?

The forbidden fruit: are we eating and cooking the wrong apples?

by Hugh Thomas 22 November 2017

Hugh Thomas takes a look beyond the bog standard British apple varieties to discover a world of quirky names, vibrant colours and exciting new flavours.

Hugh is a freelance food journalist and professional glutton. Previously, he has written for The Guardian, Time Out, Restaurant magazine, British Street Food, and inapub.

Hugh is a freelance food journalist and professional glutton. Previously, he has written for The Guardian, Time Out, Restaurant magazine, British Street Food, and inapub.

There was a time, believe it or not, when apples were very much in vogue. Victorians, surely at a point of replete after a multi-course meal, would break out the fruit – dessert would not be so much a case of cheese and wine, but Gascoyne’s Scarlet and Laxton’s Superb, served in a silver bowl and polished to show off their red, green and yellow hues. Diners would be conversant about the fruit, as their dinner-talk might suggest.

Working my way through a haul of late season Idared, Collina and Red Falstaff from the local farmers’ market recently, I can more than understand why. Flavours are more complex and diverse than the simple sweetness or acidity prevalent in Cox or Gala. Incredibly seasonal, too (a tree’s entire yield of Collina apples, for example, might drop from the tree in one day), as discerning eaters of the fruit will tell you. And with an enthusiasm not commonly shared by people regarding themselves keen pursuers of taste, let alone popular retailers. So how did we end up here?

‘I think it’s about what the customer’s aware of,’ says Max Fane, sales and marketing manager of Chegworth Valley. ‘There could be some fantastic varieties out there, but the problem is people will never pick them up.’ You know what we’re talking about – supermarkets hard-wired with sterility, where there’s nary a grain of dirt on a carrot or a suggestion of plumage on a chicken wing. It’s where food is made to look in such a way that it doesn’t remind you where it came from.

That’s no less true of fruit. The consumer has been conditioned to believe an apple looks a bit like a tennis ball in shape and size, blemish-free and with a shiny sheen. Heaven forbid should shoppers stumble across an Ashmead’s Kernel, with its rather lumpy, dull and misshapen form, often covered in russet – the apple world’s equivalent of acne. Yet under that skin is a bright yellow-white flesh with a delightful sharpness on the palate.

This is the problem with a vast number of varieties in Britain – people have no idea what they’re missing out on. ‘There’s Worcester, Melrose, Chegworth Beauty, Spartan,’ says Max. ‘Russet, with its brown-ish thick skin and tannic nutty flavour. Boskoop Rouge which is tart and fragrant, though not the prettiest, with four times the amount of vitamin C than Granny Smith. Blenheim Orange, which is more of a cooking apple, but people eat them as well. Gloucester, a dessert apple good for juicing…’

We could be here a while ­– there are some 2,000 varieties of apple growing in the UK, around a quarter of which are culinary apples. And Britain is the only country in the world growing them on any significant scale. Yes, just like the Bramley, the poster boy of the cooking apple due to its high acidic content, user friendliness, and collapsibility.

But even with its apparent ubiquity, the culinary side of the apple industry is ‘hanging on by its teeth’. Or so says Joan Morgan, co-author of The New Book of Apples. ‘We tend to be cooking less, not making apple tarts and crumbles and apple stews,’ she tells me. ‘Chefs that do use them tend to go for those with the best shape, because the nature of the English culinary apple is that it folds into a nice smooth purée when cooked – ideal when making apple sauce, but not for tarte aux pommes and other French dishes which rely on the shape of the apple being retained.’

Bramley apples have become the ubiquitous cooking variety, but there are many more out there with different textures and flavours once cooked
Getting your hands on more unusual varieties of apple can be tough, but they're still grown on a commercial scale in the UK – farm shops are the best place to find them

Still, though on the precipice, there are remnants of a wider family of cooking apples about. Go hunting in the right place during early season at the end of July or early August, and you may come across Codlin, ‘which tends to need very little cooking,’ says Joan, ‘as they’re much less sharp,’ and Early Victoria, ‘which are refreshing and summery, and when baked rise up like a soufflé.’ Then comes early midseason in September, followed by midseason in October, when you might start looking out for varieties like, say, Golden Noble. ‘A gorgeous, big yellow apple, and the best autumn cooker,’ says Joan. ‘With a flavour of its own, it makes a beautiful apple tart.’

As good as they sound, unearthing these varieties might take a bit of legwork. Enviably, this was not a problem Victorians had. Before apples became as commercially and so widely available as they are now, it was considered a luxury product more or less confined to the orchards and the supper tables of the well-heeled. ‘There grew an enormous profusion of apples under the supervision of head gardeners of country estates, where affluent folks lived and maintained self-sufficient orchards,’ says Joan.

‘Culinary’ and ‘dessert’ apples were cultivated in their respective orchards. And it was the Victorians who separated them this way, as each estate taking great interest in breeding, selecting, and promoting the finest eating apple around. ‘The criteria for a culinary apple was that it should be large and could be cooked easily, but after cooking retained a good flavour,’ says Joan. ‘Some varieties would lose their acidity and go a bit flat in taste. That’s one of the attractions in Bramley, as it doesn’t matter how much sugar and spices the recipe asks for ­– the flavour will always come through.’

With the exception of Bramley, cookers are a lot harder to get your hands on now days. So difficult, in fact, that Joan says your best bet is to grow your own. ‘Though you could find some at farmers’ markets,’ she says. ‘And community orchards, such as those set up by The Urban Orchard Project. There are also lots of local fruit groups resurrecting varieties of their particular locality.’

I don’t know if you have any silver fruit bowls lying around, or regularly indulge in seven-course supper parties, but going back to the Victorian ways of delegating a little time and respect to the apple will inevitably help found a new appreciation towards this fruit. There’s a lot even an in-season Discovery or James Grieve can do to open the mind, if not instigate a conversation that the apple is, clearly, not the one-dimensional fruit we seem to think it is.