British apples have been pushed out by French one, says Raymond Blanc

Pig’s Nose Pippins, Bloody Ploughman and a Peasgood Nonsuch: Just some of the glorious British apples Raymond Blanc laments have been squeezed out by a French invader

  • Raymond Blanc says Golden Delicious apple has ‘murdered the British orchard’ 
  • He says people should rediscover classics like the Peasgood Nonsuch apple
  • Of the 3,000 apple types known to have been created, 2,200 are grown in UK

Do you fancy a Decio, a Catshead or a Peasgood Nonsuch? How about a Pitmaston Pineapple, or maybe a Blenheim Orange and an Ashmead’s Kernel?

The joys of our old English apples are many, but one, surely, is their delightfully eccentric names.

Centuries of selective breeding gave us thousands of varieties, each one with its very own personality. Upsettingly, however, scanning the shelves of my local supermarket at the peak of the apple season, they are nowhere to be seen.

Celebrity chef Raymond Blanc says the Golden Delicious apple ‘murdered the British orchard’ and feels responsible

And sadly, if asked to name an apple, too many of us will say Golden Delicious — a French apple which since the Seventies has dominated the British market. It’s no surprise then that around two-thirds of British orchards have disappeared in the past half-century.

Indeed, the celebrity chef Raymond Blanc this week said that: ‘The Golden Delicious single-handedly murdered the British orchard . . . As a Frenchman, I do feel guilty.’

Well, M. Blanc is right and it is time for the fightback. Homegrown apples such as Gala or Braeburn are increasingly popular, along with Cox, Granny Smith, and Bramleys, while Pink Lady and Jazz are spotted ever more frequently.

It is thanks to Britain that the world of apples is colossally diverse. Of the 3,000 apple types known to have been created, a staggering 2,200 are grown in the UK.

Ashmeads Kernel and Catshead are two very traditional British apples which have been superseded by the Golden Delicious apple. Of the 3,000 apple types known to have been created, a staggering 2,200 are grown in the UK

Most are little seen, less eaten and if it weren’t for some enthusiasts, they would be lost for ever.

The big supermarkets ignore them as a commercial proposition, on the basis that consumers will mistake their often unusual appearance for imperfection. It is easy, too, to misjudge their arresting flavours because we are so used to today’s ultra-sweet apples.

And that’s a pity because just as these wonderful apple types have intriguing names, they also have their stories.

The French chef says he is ‘on the hunt’ for a Pig’s Nose Pippin (pictured, file image) which has a flat top just like a porker’s snout

All the apple breeds we have are descended from wild crab apples; small, sour fruits from the Malus pumila tree that originated in Northern Europe.

The tree and its apples vary depending on where they grow and it is this variability that enabled plant breeders to develop such a vast number of differing offspring.

The visible quirks and flavour notes of apple breeds are truly fascinating. Some seem too sweet when ripe, but will also have counter-balancing acidity, varying quantities of juice and textures that swing between crunchy and dense.

Bite into one and the juice will be dripping off your chin, another will be drier but deliver tangs of exotic fruit. Some are ideal for eating raw with cheese, others for cooking and baking.

His ‘guilt’ has prompted him to plant a 2,500-tree orchard at his legendary Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire (pictured)

So many have their own extraordinary legends. One, the Bloody Ploughman, is particularly dark and tragic: it is named after a labourer who was shot dead by a gamekeeper on the Megginch Estate, near the Carse of Gowrie, Scotland.

The ploughman had been stealing apples and when his body was returned to his wife she found some dark red apples in his pockets and threw them onto her compost heap.

The seedlings that took root became the tree now known as the Bloody Ploughman’s and, peculiarly, they are not only red on the outside, the inner flesh is stained red, too, at the peak of ripeness.

Named after villages and hamlets, vicars and doctors, dukes and anniversaries, Britain’s heritage apples tell much about ancient times in the countryside: where or who was Hormead, Tydeman, Ellisons, the Reverend W Wilkes, the Duchess of Oldenburg or Arthur Turner? Often apple names refer to royalty: Orleans Reinette, Edward II, Lanes Prince Albert and King Acre’s Pippin, for example.

And there’s Newton’s Wonder, not as I thought, named after Sir Isaac Newton’s moment of revelation, but after the village of King’s Newton in Derbyshire where a sapling was discovered growing in the thatch of the roof of the local pub.

The appearance of these can be disconcerting when compared with today’s bland offerings. Some are very small, others can be peculiarly ribbed or squat — I am on the hunt for a Pig’s Nose Pippin, which has a flat top just like a porker’s snout.

Among Britain’s apples are Lanes Prince Albert (pictured left, file image) and Newton’s Wonder (pictured right, file image) 

Decio is one of the rarest types of apple (pictured) and is beloved of the Romans (file image)

Some of the most delicious apples are the most challenging on the eye. Pitmaston Pineapple is a dull yellow with a spotty, rough skin — yet the flavour of the flesh, with overtones of pineapple, is absolutely outstanding. Decio, one of the rarest and perhaps oldest varieties of all is no oil painting. But eat it and you are tasting an apple beloved of the Romans.

The easiest way to understand the old varieties is to form them into groups. Red apples with smooth skins usually belong to the Pearmain group.

Smooth-skinned, green and red striped apples are in the Peasgood faction, while Pippins tend to have a thicker, highly scented skin and creamy coloured flesh which is sharp-tasting after picking, becoming mellower after storing.

Greenish-yellow, smooth-skinned apples are in the Golden Noble group, and finally there are the Russets: matt-skinned, greenish or dark gold, they have dense flesh with exotic flavour notes.

When it comes to cooking, the consensus is that the only apple to make sauce or a crumble with would be a Bramley. But there are dozens of other ‘cookers’. Look out for Dumelow’s Seedling, Lanes Prince Albert, Peasgood Nonsuch and the Herefordshire Beefing.

Raymond Blanc says we should rediscover English classics like the Peasgood Nonsuch (pictured, file image)

And cooks unsure of which apples to use in tarts, pies or for baking and frying can learn from Raymond Blanc himself. His ‘guilt’ has prompted him to plant a 2,500-tree orchard at his legendary Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire and he has written a book on the subject, The Lost Orchard, out this week.

And this year has been something of a vintage year for apples. Due to the regular spells of rainfall since the apple trees blossomed in the spring; warmer than average days and cooler nights, there has been a huge crop and this season’s apples are large, and those that do turn red have blushed an extraordinary, much deeper crimson.

Our miscellaneous heritage apples possess flavours of such complexity they can be reasonably compared to wine grapes. And yet supermarkets insist on pursuing a policy of ‘mono-flavour’.

The Pitmason Pineapple is among the diverse range of apples grown in the UK. It is thought that more than 40 per cent of apples sold in British supermarkets are grown in the country

Commercial growers are tasked with producing apples that are unsubtly sweet such as the best-selling Gala. Of the 121,000 tonnes of apples sold by supermarkets in 2018, 59,000 tonnes were Gala (and 28,000 tonnes were Braeburn).

This ode to the wonders of the rarer apple may sound like snobbery from an arch foodie, but apples are a popular, healthy food, and if the majority of shoppers like their apples syrupy sweet, then one type is better than none.

Some supermarkets do sell old English apple varieties. Tesco sells a six-pack of ‘Heritage Apples’ picked at the Blackmoor Estate in Hampshire (£2), and the North of England chain Booths currently stocks Egremont Russets, a rough-skinned, mellow flavoured apple dating to 1872.

More than 40 per cent of apples sold in British supermarkets are grown in the UK, a number that is set to increase, but it is sad that precious few are likely to be the old varieties.

Our apple heritage may not be easy to access with a quick run to the supermarket but searching for these lost gems and introducing them to next generation is, I believe, essential.

A Peasgood Nonsuch in the lunch box is a piece of history taken by small hands, into the future. 

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