A brand new apple release – sharp, refined, perfectly designed

Ok, so that may have been a bit of link bait – you know how these gadget freaks get all excited by the latest shiny things out of Cupertino –  it’s bound to confuse them when the follow a link and find themselves on a blog dealing with East Anglia!

So to avoid confusion: I mean the fruit. Well, it can be sharp, and sometimes refined, but it is certainly perfectly designed – and that’s no accident of nature. The modern varieties of apple we’re used to seeing in our markets (super- or otherwise) are the result of decades of cultivation, selective “breeding”, and the whims of taste. They are, in short, just as highly engineered and designed as anything you may buy that is small, shiny, silver and overpriced.

Originating in western Asia, the apple tree is actually a distant relative of the rose. Continental trade and human migrations spread the fruit across Asia and Europe, and eventually European settlers introduced it to the Americas (fair trade – they gave us the potato after all). Oddly, the apple is a bit of a rogue – if you grow a tree from the seed of a fallen fruit, the tree you get will not be the same as the one the apple fell from (the technical term is that they are “extreme heterozygotes” – they don’t inherit DNA from their “parents”). Every seedling is in effect a completely new variety. Instead, the apples we know by name are “cultivors” – they are specifically cultivated by grafting existing plants onto rootstock.

Anyway – apples are pretty cool, and have undergone all kinds of manipulation and pulling here and there to get where we are today.

So, where does this fit in with East Anglia? Much like the rest of the country, East Anglia has had a long history of growing apples, with gardeners, estate owners and orchard planters creating their own varieties all over the region. I won’t go over all the varieties I’ve found (although I’ll add some links at the end) – there are just far too many, and their history and provenance is enough for a rather large book, let alone a single blog post (although we might cover a specific variety here or there in the future!).

Instead, a little history that might be interesting. I don’t claim this is 100% accurate – again, that’d be down to a rather large book – but more a flavour.

Apple growing has been rooted in East Anglian life for centuries, far beyond any real records. However it’s a fairly safe assumption that “modern” apples were introduced as a controlled and designed crop by the Romans, and brought into the region as they made their main settlements across the east. The first real records we have are from the medieval period, where it is clear that huge tracts of land were given over to orchards. This is echoed through into the 17th century, when Thomas Fuller wrote of Norwich:

Either a city in an orchard or an orchard in a city, so equally are houses and trees blended in it, so that the pleasure of the country and the populousness of the city meet here together. Yet in this mixture, the inhabitants participate nothing of the rusticalness of the one, but altogether the urbanity and civility of the other.
The Worthies of England (1662)

While this may refer more to a excess of trees generally, the use of the specific term orchard hints that they are so common that any large grouping of trees is referred to using the term.

One apple growing enterprise that survives to this day began in this era – Aspall‘s was established in 1728. Originally a relatively small scale-operation, Aspall’s was largely set up because the founder – Clement Benjamin Chevallier – missed his favourite drink: “cyder”. To produce this favoured tipple, Clement imported apple trees from his native Jersey along with equipment from northern France.

It was due to this kind of individual investment that apple orchards thrived across East Anglia (and indeed, the rest of the UK) – individual landowners, largely the owners of large country estates, planted large areas of orchards, and invested in the manpower required to cultivate new species.

Alongside these “country estate” orchards, small to medium-scale orchard growing throughout the region seems to have continued unchecked until the commercialisation of food production changed everything in the late 19th century. The small orchards common around the region to this point gradually became untenable unless enlarged and made “industrial” in their production of fruit. The drive for this change? Not the industrialisation of growing or harvesting, but the industrialisation of transport.

The emergence of railways across the landscape made East Anglia an important area of commercial fruit growing. Suddenly the fruit long grown around the region could be transported to larger markets. This led quickly to smaller orchards disappearing, with fruit growing concentrated instead in larger plantations near to railway routes. In fact, you can almost track old railway routes by following patterns of surviving small orchards through the landscape.

A good example of this flight to the railways comes with another Cider maker – Gaymers, originally of Banham but latterly of Attleborough – where their production plant was placed directly next to the railway line that passed the town.

By the 1930s, larger scaled operations were well established, with East Anglia an important apple and cider producer. More large names were established – Copella, for example, was founded in Boxted when Devora Peake started farming in 1938. Aspall’s developed quickly into a much larger company and diversified into Vinegars and other derived products. Gradually operations became bigger and bigger until…

Everything came crashing down in the second half of the 20th century. Cheap imports of new varieties of apples (ironically largely grown on British-cultivated rootstock) that appealed more to supermarket shoppers (Golden Delicious and its family of identikit big tasteless sweet balls) rang the death knell for the British orchard. Backed by media campaigns (“le crunch bunch“, anyone?) and EU farming subsidies that encouraged the “grubbing up” of orchards, the area given over to apple orchards has been cut by almost 70% since 1970. Orchards have been completely decimated, and centuries old varieties lost forever.

So, what’s next?

Well, cider orchards have remained fairly steady – hence the cider maker names being very recognisable still – and there is now a movement back to more sustainable, small scale apple crops. Varieties that can only be produced in the UK are becoming more popular again, as people seek better quality, more flavoursome fruit. People are taking more of an interest in the provenance of our food, aided by groups dedicated to the preservation and protection of our orchards.

Our orchards have reached a point when they are now just about surviving – but only just.

We all need to do more – seek out local fruit, visit local growers and farm shops, and try varieties you’ve never seen before (believe me, compared to Jazz or Pink Lady older varieties will blow your tastebuds).

Below you’ll find lots of links to information about local varities, and where you can find them – and some more on the history of apples in the region. I don’t mean this account to be 100% accurate, but to provide more of a flavour of the topic – read around the links to find out more, and if you want to correct something, add a link, or extend a point, please do comment.

Above all else. Buy some lovely home-grown apples, and just think about the history behind this wonderful fruit!



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