The English Apple Is Disappearing

Save this storySave this storySave this storySave this story

In June, 1899, Sabine Baring-Gould, an English rector, collector of folk songs, and author of a truly prodigious quantity of prose, was putting the finishing touches on “A Book of the West,” a two-volume study of Devon and Cornwall. Baring-Gould, who had fifteen children and kept a tame bat, wrote more than a thousand literary works, including some thirty novels, a biography of Napoleon, and an influential study of werewolves. In the preface to his latest, he wrote that it was neither a guide book nor a history of the counties, which would have made it too heavy to carry. Instead, Baring-Gould had chosen to “pick out some incident, or some biography” to elucidate the places that he described. The town of Honiton was notable for its lace; Torquay for its caves; Tiverton for Old Snow, a kindly male witch who had died a few years earlier.

Baring-Gould devoted thirteen pages of his description of Crediton, a “curious, sleepy place” on the banks of the river Creedy, in the heart of Devon, to its apples. For months of the year, the town was awash in fruit and cider. The soil all around was red. In the orchards, trees were heavy with everything from “griggles” (small, stunted apples left over for children) to storied cider-making varieties, such as Kingston Black and Cherry Pearmain. In the fall, Baring-Gould wrote, “The grass of the orchard is bright with crimson and gold as though it were studded with jewels.” Life in the Creedy valley was dense with ancient apple lore, such as “S. Frankin’s Days,” in May, when the Devil might bring a late frost; the firing of blank charges into the bare branches of apple trees on Old Christmas Day, to bring good luck; and “wassailing” the trees, or singing to their health. There had been tough times for apple growers earlier in the century, with the rise of beer and imports from America. But those threats were on the wane. “The trees are having their good times again,” Baring-Gould wrote.

The trees are not having good times now. On a blustery morning a few weeks ago, I drove to Crediton to visit Sandford Orchards, the largest remaining cider mill in town. The factory was cut into the side of a steep hill so that it could stay cool all year round. One of its oak vats, the General, dates from 1903 and holds ten thousand gallons of fermenting apple juice. When I arrived, the proprietor, Barny Butterfield, was in conversation with a colleague about the flavor profile of the latest batch of Devon Dry, one of the company’s ciders. “There’s no recipe!” Butterfield told me, a little giddily.

Butterfield reopened the ciderworks in 2014. (The original occupant, Creedy Valley Cider, closed in 1967.) Since then, he has become a prominent—and occasionally isolated—advocate for Britain’s encyclopedic variety of apples, of which there are more than two and a half thousand cultivars. The Romans, most likely, brought the first rootstocks. The Saxons inscribed the fruit into land and myth. (Avalon, the Arthurian paradise, means “land of apples.”) The Victorians went melanzane for them. (“Melanzana,” Italian for “eggplant,” comes from “mala insana,” or “mad apple.”) Apples are now the national fruit. But the British apple industry is deep in crisis. Most people agree that the market, which divides into dessert—or eating—apples and cider apples, is broken in one way or another. Butterfield, who is forty-seven, took me upstairs to his office, which was dotted with old stoneware jugs and scientific papers from the nineteen-fifties detailing the juice composition of cider-apple varieties, and sat down at his desk. “We’re going into the crater,” he said.

When Baring-Gould wrote about Crediton, Devon had twenty-six thousand acres of apple orchards. Ninety per cent of those are thought to be gone. And the growers who are left are losing money fast. According to British Apples & Pears Limited (B.A.P.L.), a trade organization that represents three hundred apple and pear farmers in the country, the cost of producing apples in the U.K. has increased by thirty per cent since 2021—an uptick driven mainly by rising energy prices and labor costs. During the same period, retail prices have risen by only a quarter of that. “So there’s a big gap,” Ali Capper, the executive chair of B.A.P.L., told me last week. “Mind the gap, I’ve started to say.”

Capper grows cider and dessert apples overlooking the Malvern Hills, by the border between Worcestershire and Herefordshire. She said that the cost of producing a pack of six Gala apples, a cultivar first developed in New Zealand in the nineteen-thirties, which is one of Britain’s most popular apples, was currently one pound and six pence. But the supermarkets weren’t paying that. “I would be surprised if there’s any retailer in the U.K that is paying a pound,” Capper said.

The British grocery market is an oligopoly. Eight retailers control ninety-two per cent of sales. A recent report by the House of Lords Horticultural Sector Committee described their power as “behemothic.” They can source cold-stored Galas from all over the world. (About sixty per cent of apples sold in the U.K. are imported.) For cultural, possibly griggle-related, reasons, British consumers like a small apple, one that fits easily in the hand. The U.S. and Asian markets prefer larger fruit, so foreign farmers can often sell smaller apples that have been rejected by their own retailers to British grocers at a discount. “It’s very difficult to compete with that,” Capper said.

The combination of steeply rising costs and being undercut by cheaper, similar apples from overseas is proving unmanageable. “It’s happened very quickly,” Capper told me. “We’ve had businesses going from profitable and able to cope with volatility to losing money.” As a rule, British apple growers tend to plant between eight hundred thousand and a million and a half new trees each year to refresh their orchards and keep up with changing tastes. In recent years, the total has been closer to four hundred thousand. “If you don’t reinvest as a sector, you don’t stay with the market,” Capper said. “And if you can’t stay with the market, then you go out of business.” Last fall, a survey of a hundred fruit and vegetable farmers found that forty-nine were expecting to go bankrupt in the next twelve months.

While all British apple growers are suffering, they don’t see the crisis the same way. Capper struck me as phlegmatic about the power of the supermarkets. “Loyalty is gone,” she said. “It’s all about buying cheap.” She was also unsentimental about the rise of generic, global apple varieties—often characterized by white flesh, a crisp bite, and an ability to store well, or hold their “pressures,” for months at a time—many of which have been developed by apple breeders in Australasia. The tastiest apple at Britain’s National Fruit Show for eight of the past ten years has been the Jazz, the marketing name for the Scifresh cultivar—a cross between Gala and Braeburn, two New Zealand varieties—which was first developed in 1985.

Capper told me that the sector was going through a moment comparable to one it experienced in the late seventies, when French farmers started exporting the Golden Delicious to the U.K. under the slogan “Le Crunch.” “It nearly killed the British industry,” she said. “There was obviously the loss of an awful lot of orchards. And then what happened was that there was a refocus by the industry on varieties that could compete.” Of the twenty-five or so varieties of eating apple now grown commercially in Britain, only nine originated here. “There is a lot of hand-wringing about that,” Capper said. “But the truth is that those traditional varieties were actually very hard to grow.” Yields were unpredictable and shelf lives short. Between 2015 and 2020, the annual crop of Cox’s Orange Pippin—the sharp, tangy taste of English autumns since it first went on sale in the eighteen-fifties—fell by more than fifty per cent.

For Butterfield, this is a counsel of despair. “The Cox, the Egremont Russet,” he said, with feeling, referring to a rusty-looking but delicious apple raised on the estate of the Earl of Egremont, in Petworth, in the late nineteenth century. “I mean, the Egremont Russet—what a fucking apple.” In his view, global supply chains and a few standardized cultivars have separated Britain’s population from the apple of its eye. “One of the problems that we’ve got is, What are we saving? We’re saving dreary red fruit that tastes of absolute nothing,” Butterfield told me. “There’s nothing to say. If you could put an Egremont Russet back into someone’s hands—put it back into their lunchbox—for a moment they are transported, because the amount of flavor and richness, you could get excited about that. . . . The problem is that the great British public are not exposed to this.”

To remind us of what was here, Butterfield and a group of biologists at the University of Bristol have been working to record and map every variety of apple tree they can find in the West of England. The project started in 2017, when Liz Copas—the last pomologist at the Long Ashton Research Station, a now defunct government fruit-and-cider research institute—revealed that the breeding records of a group of novel cider-apple cultivars known as the Girls had been lost. Three crop scientists—Keith Edwards, Amanda Burridge, and Mark Winfield—adapted a form of DNA technology, which they had used to identify different strains of wheat, to take a genomic “fingerprint” from the Girls’ leaves.

Since then, the apple-tree database has grown to incorporate every cultivar held in the National Fruit Collection, at Brogdale, in Kent, and hundreds more, from the West Country. When Edwards and I met, he told me, “I worry about these kinds of interviews because one of the things it does is initiate an avalanche of e-mails from people who have an interesting apple tree in their garden.” In 2020, he and the team received around eight hundred tree samples—including entire branches—at their laboratory in Bristol. “The majority of them were Cox’s or Bramleys,” Edwards said. (Bramleys are the country’s best-loved cooking apples.) “That’s fine.”

In his office in Crediton, Butterfield pulled up the database on his computer and started reading off the local varieties, most of them cider-apple trees, many of which he had sampled, logged, and pruned himself: “Harvest Lemon, Reinette d’Obry, Michelin, Chisel Jersey, Crimson Newton, Tremlett’s Bitter, Crimson King, Fair Maid of Devon, Tan Harvey.” Every chance seedling—a core thrown from a car window—has its own DNA and is highly unlikely to produce decent apples. But cultivars, which have been selected at one time or another for their fruit, yield, or hardiness, are clones. (Apple-tree grafting was established by the time of Alexander the Great.) The trees that Butterfield and the crop scientists are most interested in are lost cultivars, occasional trees with matching DNA, whose potential was once seen but is now forgotten. “Group 1, Group 7, Group 15,” Butterfield read out. “These are unique. They’re in no collection anywhere.” He went on, “But they’re in Cross Barton, and they’re in Uppincott, and then they’re in Whiteways.” Whiteways, fifteen miles east of Butterfield’s ciderworks, was once the largest apple orchard in the world.

Butterfield blends the juices of between forty to seventy apple varieties to make his ciders. He dreams of finding a lost cultivar that will top them all. “Where are these shit-hot, really interesting apples that are gonna make great drinks?” he said. In the seventeen-twenties, the fruit of a single tree, named Royal Wilding, which grew next to the old port road to Exeter, was the talk of the county. There is no known surviving graft. Butterfield is also on the hunt for what he calls “natural survivors.” Climate change is altering Britain’s apple harvests. The Dabinett, the mainstay of the cider-apple crop, requires cold winters, especially as a young tree, in order to flower properly in the spring—a process known as vernalization. But frost and snow are becoming ever rarer in the U.K. (Butterfield’s best-performing orchard is in a north-facing valley.) The industry will need to find a successor apple—to go back to its library of cultivars—at some point. “We have funnelled our genetics . . . we have picked favorites,” Butterfield said. “If we don’t keep the broader, ancient DNA in existence, then it’s gone.”

The real spirit of the project is both nostalgic and utopian. The records of costermongers (originally apple sellers) from the nineteenth century show that English apples were sold from September to May, without chemicals or cold storage or cargo ships to carry them around the world. “What fucking apples were they, that weren’t stored in a giant refrigerator and gassed?” Butterfield said. He told me about Ironsides, which became soft enough to eat only after Christmas, after a few months in a cellar, and were edible all year round. Perhaps there is a future in which local, low-carbon farming and centuries of apple-growing knowledge become necessary, or even desirable, again. Perhaps there isn’t. Just in case, Butterfield wants supermarkets to consider devoting ten per cent of their apples to “heritage varieties,” to give the country’s traditional cultivars a chance. “They’re never going to agree to anything that moves the dial,” he acknowledged. “But if we can keep these apples alive and remind ourselves . . .”

A couple of weeks after I visited Crediton, I called Duncan Small, who has helped run Charlton Orchards in the village of Creech St. Michael, in Somerset, for the past thirty-five years. Small specializes in growing traditional English varieties, including Ashmead’s Kernel. “It looks rough, quite frankly. It often has cracks in it,” Small told me. “Not particularly appealing to the eye, but an absolutely delicious apple. Yeah. Really good. Quite popular during Victorian times.” Small is sixty-four. He and his wife, Sally, are closing the orchard. “It’s not viable anymore, unfortunately,” he said. Small was not sure that the wider public cared about English apples anymore. “I don’t think enough people think about it, more than just having a crunch and chuck it over their shoulder,” he said. “Where it comes from doesn’t really worry them.”

It has been a cold spring, but the first apple blossoms have started to appear. I asked Small if he enjoyed this time of year and he said that these were probably the most stressful weeks in the orchard. A late frost, or not enough pollinators, could wreck the harvest. Then he started talking about his father, Robin, who used to tend the trees before him. During cold, clear nights in the spring, when he feared a frost, or when the wind got up, in the fall, and the boughs were full of fruit, Small’s father would be too anxious to stay in the house. “He just couldn’t rest. He’d just have to be out,” Small said. His father would walk up and down among the trees in the dark. “He couldn’t do anything. But he just felt that if the apples were out there being exposed to it, he ought to be as well,” Small recalled. “So he’d go out and torture himself.” ♦


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *