Various statistics suggest that the apple is the UK's number one fruit, but what do we know about apples apart from the saying that ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’?
Well, the apple tree is of the species Malus domestica in the family Rosaceae, and there are 2,200 varieties in the UK's National Fruit Collection in Kent. So whether you like your apples crunchy or soft, sweet or sharp, green, red or russet, you’re bound to find your perfect apple amongst that number!
So how did there come to be so much choice?
The first written mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in 885 AD. Is it just coincidence that this was just a few short years after he’d let the peasant woman’s cakes burn? Or did he discover that an apple was better for you and simpler than making a cake? Of course we can only guess, but it’s clear that apples soon became a favourite with the general population.
By the eleventh century (after the Norman Conquest) King William I’s men started to bring in new varieties from France and monks planted orchards at places like Ely, where they created new varieties by cross-pollination. One of the first popular apples, grown all over England, was the Costard. Those who sold it were known as costardmongers – costermongers.
After a decline in fruit production due to the Black Death in the mid- fifteenth century, Henry VIII took charge of the situation in the 1530s when he ordered his fruiterer to find new apple varieties and plant them in his orchard in Kent. At that time the most popular apple was the Queene, but things began to change when the red-skinned Pippin was introduced from France.
But it wasn’t until the 1700s that an agricultural revolution took place, with a man called Thomas Andrew Knight undertaking a series of experiments in pollination to create several new species. The work continued under Queen Victoria’s reign with master nurseryman, Thomas Laxton, whose family company developed nearly twenty apple species (including Laxton’s Superb) as well as several different types of peas and strawberries.
Over the next hundred years, specialists in the UK continued their research, not only developing new apples, but making them more disease- and pest-resistant and easier to pick too. And to compete with imported apples from around the globe, clever UK twenty-first century-growers have developed popular varieties such as Braeburn, Gala and Jazz.
Of course, the work to keep us supplied with delicious apples never stops, and we’re look forward to trying the latest apples: Kanz, Rubens and Cameo.
What’s your favourite?