There is a big difference between British apples and the foreign varieties that are sold in the big supermarkets. I am sure there are local apples grown in Spain and particularly in France that are more like the ones we developed in this county, but we only know the commercial ones. Red Delicious, which you can buy in supermarkets across the land, I regard as poor in flavour. It may be sweet, but there is more to the taste of an apple than sugary fructose alone. Although it has a fine name, the reason for the popularity of the Red Delicious is of course its appearance; shoppers are distracted by the large size, perfect skin and delightful colour; can it really be that the purchasers do not consider the taste?
I would urge anybody with enough space in their garden to buy an apple tree. A pear tree or plum would be nice to have as well, but only if there is room after you have planted your apple. There is no better crop. When I was a lad we had several apple trees. There was a Cox’s Orange Pippin; these were crisp when newly picked, mellowing with time. The fruit were small and scabby, so there was no way anyone would have bought them, but they were still delicious. We also had an Ellison’s Orange, but this was a leggy tree which only had a handful of apples a year. This variety is an offspring of the Cox. They tasted similar but looked more attractive, not having the scab.
We also had a cooking apple, a Bramley’s Seedling. This was a regular cropper; it always had a lot of fruit, and in a good year it would produce some monsters. When I was first married we were living in a flat, and so we took an allotment. It had been rather neglected and there was a tangle of spear grass roots to dig out, but it had a massive Bramley tree in one corner. It produced so many apples that we sold bags and bags of them at my wife’s school fête that autumn. The Bramley is not merely the best cooking apple – it is the only cooking apple. Other apples may be cooked, but only a Bramley produces the delicious pulp that is the essential filling of an apple pie, at least to the English taste.
Crab apples are normally grown today for their visual effect, which is of bright red little fruits. Of course there are plenty of wild crab apple trees in the hedgerows. These do not have the bright coloured fruit of the cultivated varieties, they are just green. It is possible to use either the wild or the cultivated fruit to make crab apple jelly – if you have the patience. For me the drip, drip, drip of the juice through the jelly bag is just so slow! The end product is nice though.
Another product of this versatile fruit is cider. I went through several years of turning the damaged and rotten fruit from our trees into cider. You must press a number of rotten apples together with the wholesome ones; this is not merely to extract as much juice as possible. It is from the rotten apples that you get the yeast required to ferment the must. I even made a crude cider press to assist the process. We made a few gallons of scrumpy each autumn. This was a laborious and slow undertaking like the making of crab apple jelly, but not quite as tedious.
It is time to return to considering the apples we grew during my childhood; a late addition to our orchard was a Laxton’s Superb tree. My sister had bred rabbits as a teenager, but she decamped to the Channel Islands as an adult, and we bought another apple tree to plant in the space where my sister’s rabbit hutch had been. This proved to be the best of the lot. It was first produced at the end of the 19th century in 1897. In flavour they were another apple similar to a Cox, but with a much more prolific yield. The size of the fruit was also considerably larger, and they did not suffer from scab. The tree itself was a vigorous plant.
A very different apple from the Laxton is the Russet which comes in several varieties, but all with a similar rough brown skin. These are my favourites, although I have never owned a tree. There is a relatively brief period in the autumn when you can buy them, but you need to go to a specialist greengrocer to get them, and such shops are rather few on the ground these days. A few years ago there was still such a greengrocer’s shop in Mundesley; I don’t know if it is still there. In Norwich there are still several fruit stalls on the market, but otherwise I struggle to think of any traditional greengrocers. Of course there are places by the roadside where you can buy apples fresh from the tree, but this is a hit and miss affair, and I don’t know of any which sell Russets.
So far I have mentioned only the fruit, but the pink blossom in the spring is the promise of things to come. The fragrance of the apple blossom is so delicate, and the flowers are so tender; a late frost can strike your future crop down in an instant, and leave your trees with only a sparse number of fruit in the following autumn.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE