avatar
Fallen Fruit


It takes a while to work out what it is about Hogg and Bull’s Herefordshire Pomona. What it is that, two or three minutes after you’ve started lifting the heavy pages, makes you, quite unexpectedly, want to cry. It’s not, or not only, the pictures. The apples and pears painted by a Miss Alice Ellis can almost be rolled off the page and bitten. She added nothing, took nothing away. Where she saw warts, she painted warts, where scabs, scabs. And yet they glow. They are more real than – than any real apple you’ll find in the shops today.

It’s not, or not only, the text. It’s a classic of late Victorian natural history, pedantic and passionate. Here, among quotes from Shakespeare and Homer and Clare, are recipes for orchard manure, dissertations on specific gravity, the cordon-system of growing pears, Roman cooking, the “laws of Vegetable Physiology”, pests, fermentation, soil, grafting. There are chapters on the lives and times of the great fruit growers, transcripts of folk songs and poems, no end of nonsense about the druids and the ancient Britons, unlikely claims about the longevity of habitual cider drinkers.

Then you see it. It’s the names. The names of the fallen. Foxwhelp, Sheep’s Snout, Hogshead, Duck’s Bill, Black Wilding, Brown Cockle, Ramping Taurus, Monstrous Pippin, Burr Knot, Broadtail, Carrion, Hagloe Crab, Eggleton Styre, Norfolk Beefing, Cornish Aromatic, Skyrme’s Kernel, Peasgood’s Nonesuch, Tom Putt, Bitter-scale, Slack-my-girdle, Bastard Rough Coat, Bloody Turk. The list runs into thousands. It is a history of rural England, a poem in pomology, rough and bitter and sad.

Sprouting from every name is a tree of knowledge. Before I read this book, I am ashamed to say, I thought that an apple was something you picked and ate, sometime around October. Now I know that the best dessert apples are those which must be stored for a month or more. There are some which aren’t ready to come off the tree until December; others which are unfit to eat unless they’ve been in the cellar from October till March. There is one variety, the Winter Greening (Shakespeare’s Apple John), which can be kept for two years. There are apples which taste of aniseed, banana, pineapple, nutmeg and carraway. There are apples grown for roasting over the fire, so that they burst and turn into “lamb’s wool”, the flavouring for a winter drink. There are others bred to be broiled in a pan. There are hundreds which cannot be eaten in any state, but are grown for making cider. Some are the size of walnuts: the smaller they are, Hogg and Bull contend, the better the cider.

Dr Hogg and Dr Bull were commissioned to write the Pomona by the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, a society of Herefordshire doctors and vicars and farmers which had become famous for its fungus forays. ‘These Forays,’ they lamented, ‘could not fail to impress upon the members the sad state of neglect into which the orchards of Herefordshire had been allowed to fall … the observation was made, that “celebrated as Herefordshire is for its orchards, it was very remarkable that so few of the best varieties of apples should appear in the markets, or the fruit shops, of Hereford.”’

It’s hard to see what they were complaining about. Between 1876 and 1883 (when they were compiling the Pomona), the orchards of Herefordshire grew by 10%, to 27,000 acres. Altogether, 186,000 acres of England grew fruit trees. Today there are 44,000 acres of orchard in England. The area under apple trees has halved since 1994. And many of the surviving orchards must be pretty well redundant, because the amount of fruit they produce has fallen even faster, by 50% since 1999.

Some of the reasons for this tragedy would have been familiar to the two pomologists. ‘The power of the steam engine by land and by sea’, they complained, ‘lessens expenditure by cheapness of conveyance, and thus wider markets are offered for all articles of trade. … Competition thus becomes world-wide … The benefit to humanity at large is unquestionable, but to individuals and localities the result is often ruinous. Agriculture is now tried to its uppermost to contend with these great changes … American and Continental Apples and Pears are brought year by year in larger quantities to supply our great centres of population. They are always noted for those first two marketable qualities “size” and “beauty of colour”’.

But our remaining orchards are also threatened by something they wouldn’t have anticipated: the European Union, and one of the maddest decisions it has made since it determined that the carrot was a fruit.

On January 1st, the European subsidy system changes. From that moment on, production subsidies will start to be withdrawn, and all agricultural land will qualify instead for something called a Single Farm Payment, of about £200 a hectare. While every other kind of farming, even growing ornamental shrubs in greenhouses, will be eligible for the payment, commercial orchards will be classified as “non-agricultural”. And January 1st is the cut-off date: if your land doesn’t qualify for the scheme by then, it will never qualify for the scheme again. If you don’t grub up your orchards by the end of the year, in other words, you and your descendants will be £200 a hectare poorer, every year for the foreseeable future.

But to understand the potential impact of this measure, we must first understand how close to the edge our surviving fruit growers have already been pushed, as a result of that problem with which Drs Hogg and Bull were familiar: the lessening of expenditure by cheapness of conveyance. Let us begin in the world’s least likely centre of biodiversity: Slough. Here, among the gasometers and yellow brick estates, we find Nick Houston, tweed cap, red beard, fag and jackknife, shoving his way through the jungle. “Golden russet. I know it’s in here somewhere”. Chainsaw boots. Square basket knocking against his thighs. Then a voice from the undergrowth.

“Here it is. Take a look at that. I don’t know which golden russet, cos this one isn’t in the National Fruit Collection. They’ve got one, but it doesn’t match. Stores till June. Not fit to eat till February. Bloody marvellous.”

I first met Nick last winter, when I wanted to buy some fruit trees. I had a copy of the Fruit and Vegetable Finder, published in 1995. It listed JC Allgrove’s as the last of the great nurseries of the Thames Valley. In the 1940s it kept 1000 varieties of apple tree, and in 1995 it still sold 250. I rang the number in the book and a woman answered.

“I’m sorry dear, we’ve closed. We shut down a couple of years ago. But you could talk to Nick. He might have something left over”.

Nick had taken over the nursery, unpaid, when the last Mr Allgrove fell ill. But it hadn’t been commercially viable for years. The orchards which once bought the young trees had been grubbed up. Now the only calls came from enthusiasts.

“I’ve been trying to keep it ticking over, but they’ve had to put the land on the market. So it’s pretty well finished,” he told me.

He found me half a dozen saplings he had grafted a couple of years before. But that was almost the last of the stock. By the time I returned in September, to see the old trees in fruit, there was a new lock on the gate. The men who had bought the place were sympathetic, and they let us in. But the land hadn’t come cheap, and keeping a forest of 250 forgotten varieties of apple tree isn’t the kind of business model the bank manager would appreciate.

No one knows exactly what the orchard contains, but besides the unidentified golden russet, Nick is convinced that somewhere in the jungle is a St Augustine’s Orange and a King Harry – both officially extinct. Hardly any of the breeds there are still grown commercially.

If you blot out the outskirts of Slough, creeping over the tops of the trees, the orchard looks like a fifteenth-century painting of the Garden of Eden, minus the beasts and the naked progenitors. Nick showed me a Tudor apple, the Devonshire Quarrenden, deep purple and about an inch and a half across. “Juicy, aromatic, soon goes over”. The best fruit in the 16th century, he said, were about the size of the top joint of his thumb. A few yards away was a cooker called the Reverend W Wilkes, raised at the turn of the century by the first Mr Allgrove: pale, almost spherical, pulling the boughs of the tree down to the ground. Some of the apples must have weighed two pounds. He picked me a St Edmund’s Pippin, a russeted yellow-green thing, which was sweet and lemony, far better than the gritty Egremont Russet, which the superstores have been promoting as the connoisseur’s apple.

There was a Michaelmas Red, whose flesh was marbled with crimson, and shot with several astonishing flavours. A Millers’ Seedling, small, striped green and red, the juiciest and sweetest fruit I’ve ever eaten. “It used to fill the London markets, but today, because it’s small and doesn’t keep, no one’s interested.” The Golden Noble, primrose yellow, “more vitamin C than any other cooker.” A Ribston Pippin. “Exquisite. It should be obligatory. You ought to get a reduction on your council tax for having one in your garden.” An Arthur Turner, bred, romantically, in Slough, which looked as if someone was shining an orange light onto its skin. An apple called a Sunset, which seeded accidentally from a Cox in 1937, and which crowds the branches so densely you can scarcely see the wood. It tasted better than the Cox, it’s prettier too, in scarlet and orange, and resistant to almost all diseases. “But again, too small for modern markets.” An Ellison’s orange, which I knew the moment I tried it. “Everyone used to have one of these in his garden,” Nick told me, and I remembered, though I had never known the name, that my father had one in his. You couldn’t mistake it for anything else: the flesh tastes faintly but distinctly of pernod.

“Ahh! Belle de Boskoop. Last year the wife practically sued this one for adultery. It is gorgeous.” A Pitmaston pineapple: conical yellow apples hanging from the branches, perfectly spaced, like Christmas tree baubles. “Right now it’s completely inedible. But leave it till December and it tastes of pineapple and honey.” He turned the little apple over in his hand. “And what do they plant? Bloody Fiesta!”

“Why? Why won’t they plant the old kinds?”

“Supermarkets. There seems to be a complete fatwa on home-grown apples. They’re interested only in consistent appearance. They dictate what gets grown, how big it should be, what colour it should be, how it’s picked, how it’s stored. They’re not interested in taste. Even when they’ve got a good variety, it tastes like mush. A commercial grower is told to put his apples in a fridge, so they can’t mature. I think they’re completely round the bend if you want to know.”

On the way back to the gates, Nick showed me the old farm sheds. In one of them was a pile of stakes, on which names were painted in big black letters. Allgrove’s used them to mark the old trees. Nick rummaged through the pile. “Extinct, extinct, extinct.” He was still grafting a few of the rare varieties, in case anyone rang the old number. “Otherwise”, he told me, “that’s it. It’s sad, but what can you do?”

The problem was that the commercial buyers had gone. When the nursery was founded, long before the Herefordshire Pomona was published, the land around Slough was one of Britain’s best fruit-growing regions. It split the London markets with Kent. In the cemetery of St Mary’s Church in Harmondsworth, about five miles from the nursery, I found a big tabular grave in grim brown sandstone, where lay one “Richard Cox Esq., who departed this life on May 20th 1845.” Cox crossed a Blenheim Orange with a Ribston Pippin. The result eventually sped the downfall of his beloved English orchards: New Zealand could produce the Cox’s Orange Pippin more cheaply than we could. By the time it gets to Britain it tastes of kitchen towels dipped in glucose, but it’s cheap and it looks right, and that, it seems, is what counts.

Three miles from Cox’s grave is where the best orchard land used to be: around a sleepy Middlesex village called Heathrow. The apple trees and strawberry farms were flattened to build the first runways, and now “the power of the steam engine by land and by sea” is augmented by the jet engine’s cheapness of conveyance. Exotic fruits from all over the world land on the grubbed-out orchards.

Step into any supermarket and you’ll see the result. I chose the Sainsbury’s in Taunton, for two reasons. It is in the middle of one of Britain’s last surviving apple-growing regions, and three hundred yards from the store there was a farmers’ market in which (it was the beginning of the season), five varieties of English apple were being sold, from an orchard a couple of miles away.

There were twelve breeds of apple on sale, if you include the conventional and organic versions of the same varieties. Two were English: a huge glossy ball of hybridised pap called an Elstar, and a Bramley. The Bramley reminded me of what Nick Houston had said about the supermarkets’ specifications. When it has been allowed to ripen on the branch, so that it’s pale green with plenty of red and the flesh is soft and fluffy, it cooks beautifully. But the superstores demand an apple that is pure dark green. When Nick had worked in commercial orchards, he was instructed to bend down the branches of the Bramleys, so that the fruit was shielded from sunlight, in order to prevent it from changing colour. This also prevented it from acquiring either flavour or sweetness, but that didn’t seem to matter. “They told us to pick it unripe, when it was about as appetising as a cricket ball, and you’d need a pneumatic drill to get into it”.

Anyway, even the ripest and sweetest Bramley ever grown doesn’t touch the Reverend W Wilkes for texture and flavour. But the Wilkes, or the Golden Noble, or the Arthur Turner, or the Mere de Menage, couldn’t, unlike the concrete Bramley, be fired through a barn door at 30 paces and land unscathed, so it doesn’t meet the superstores’ two overriding specifications: that it keeps forever and won’t bruise.

There were Royal Galas and Golden Delicious from France, organic Royal Galas from Italy, Pink Lady, Braeburn, Granny Smith and Sundowner from South Africa, and Jazz, Braeburn and organic Pink Lady from New Zealand. They were all big, juicy and consistent in appearance, but if you were asked to eat them blindfolded you’d be hard-put to distinguish any one of them from any other, or, for that matter, any one of them from a Diet 7-Up.

But the oddest item was the Cox’s Orange Pippin from Holland. It was odd for three reasons. First that it didn’t look anything like a Cox, which is supposed to be a red and yellow apple with plenty of russetting: these were smooth and dark green with a bit of red. Second that this (it was September 16th) was at least three weeks before Coxes were ready to eat. Third, that when we rang the supermarkets to ask them about their buying policy, they’d told us that their English apple season hadn’t yet begun, which was why they were still stocking apples from the southern hemisphere.

Well plainly the English apple season had begun: you had only to walk down the High Street to find Worcester Pearmain, Greensleeves, Spartan, Lord Lambourne and (almost edible) Bramleys on sale in the farmers’ market. But the Cox season hadn’t. If they were buying unripe Coxes from Holland, why couldn’t they buy unripe Coxes from Somerset? More to the point, why couldn’t they buy ripe Worcesters from down the road?

Well, one of the priveleges of the journalist is that you can put these questions directly to the perpetrators, and the perpetrator Sainsbury supplied was a pleasant young man called Neil Gibson, who was responsible for buying its apples. I met him a few miles from Canterbury, in one of the packing sheds belonging to the biggest apple grower in the country.

What do you picture when you hear the words “English orchard”? Nothing, I suspect, like the thing I encountered at Mansfield Farms. The company has 3000 acres of trees – almost one sixth of the English eating apple orchards. So the first thing you see is a giant car park, and a procession of white minibuses dropping off the pickers and packers. And behind it, three huge steel sheds, in which …

The apples are dropped into water, and floated onto a conveyor belt. It takes them through a giant green hood like a CAT scanner, where they are photographed and compared, by computer, to the transcendental form they are packing that day. When I visited they were packing Royal Gala for Sainsbury’s, who had specified that the apples should be 60% red and above a certain diameter, measured to the nearest millimetre. On other days they packed for Waitrose or Marks and Spencer or Somerfield, each of which demanded different colour ratios: the machine was calibrated accordingly. The computer feeds instructions to the conveyor belt, which is made of hundreds of rotating brushes. The apples which fail the test are automatically shunted into a different lane, and dropped down a shute. The ones that pass are rolled off the belt and into the trays, which are then moved down the loading jetties. Here, workers dressed in Guantanamo Orange make sure they’ve settled correctly into the trays, then feed them through a machine which slaps the little stickers on. Supervisors in white coats dash from jetty to jetty.

Neil had been on the media training courses and he said all the right things. And there was a big delegation of men in white coats watching us, who would take him away if he didn’t. Sainsbury, he said, is doing its best to help British apple growers, and is now selling more varieties of English apple than any other supermarket: fifteen in all. It had introduced a couple of traditional breeds in its “season’s best” range, and I was surprised and impressed to hear that these included the St Edmond’s Pippin.

“But surely a lot of the British apples you’re selling are really New Zealand or Canadian varieties, which are being grown over here?”

“Well consumer demand dictates that supermarkets have to sell varieties that consumers want to buy. Royal Gala is a key variety for the consumer. It’s been successfully grown in the UK for the last five or ten years, which means we can source the majority of our Royal Gala from the UK during the British season.”

“So this is purely driven by the consumer? It’s not driven by the supermarkets’ need to stock an apple which doesn’t bruise easily, which stores easily, which can be grown in bulk to a standard shape and size?”

“Not at all. To give an example, the Braeburn, it’s a key variety which we’ve encouraged the growers to grow in the UK, through support and through the development of new storage techniques. And we’ve been able to source 300 tonnes of Braeburns from Britain each year.”

It was good that they’d realised some people wanted to buy apples, like St Edmond’s Pippins, which tasted better than they looked, even though the quantities they stocked were tiny by comparison to the volume of Braeburns or Golden Delicious. But the claim that their decisions are governed entirely by consumer demand is simply wrong. The superstores have withdrawn one of the most popular modern varieties, the Katy, because it bruises easily, which means they lose too much stock as they truck it from John O’Groats to Land’s End via Spitsbergen and back. And whoever asked for a Bramley with the texture of depleted uranium?

In fairness to them, people have been passing the buck about the kinds of apple they handle for a long time. ‘And the Lord said, “Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?” And the man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” And the Lord God said unto the woman, “What is this that thou hast done?” And the woman said, “The serpent beguiled me”’.

Only twenty per cent of the apples sold in the United Kingdom are grown here, and most of the surviving producers are trying to compete directly with foreign growers, by cultivating the same varieties as they do. It’s a mug’s game: over the past ten years, China has planted more orchards than there are in western Europe; with the obvious result that the only viable future for the British apple grower is to produce fruit which aren’t being grown anywhere else. That is certainly what June and Robin Small, owners of Charlton Orchards in Somerset, have found.

Now this is an English orchard of the kind you might have pictured. Round green trees with round red apples, on a sunlit field giving onto the Blackdown Hills. In the branches, like giant birds, perch a crowd of multi-coloured hippies: the students who have come to pick them. From the pages of the same unlikely storybook walk Robin and June: white hair, apple cheeks, strong hands, broad Zumerzett.

The Smalls have 40 acres of fruit. Until six years ago, they sold it to the superstores, but they found them harder and harder to deal with.

“They wanted apples all of the same size, the same colour, the same shape. And it meant that our apples just were not acceptable. We do grow some odd-shaped ones in this country,” June told me.

“They were paying a reasonable price 10, 15, 20 years ago,” Robin said. “But we found that the price wasn’t rising, but of course our costs were. They were able to source apples from anywhere in the world, at a price that suited them. In the UK it’s more difficult to grow the high-yielding crops. But because the apples grow more slowly, the flavour is so much better.”

A few years ago, a French farmers’ market came to Taunton. The Smalls went, and saw that they had a way out. They got together with the local bakers and cheesemakers and vegetable growers and started setting up markets of their own. Now they supply 20 every month. Through the markets and their farm shop they shift 200 tonnes of apples a year. They introduce their customers to unfamiliar varieties by giving them samples to taste, and they’ve discovered that the enthusiasm for diversity is almost limitless. They now grow 35 varieties of apple, mostly old ones: Adam’s Pearmain, Ribston Pippin, Ashmead’s Kernel, James Grieve, Orleans Reinette, Grenadier, Charles Ross, Winter Greening. The market is there: the growers just have to find a way of reaching it. The problem for anyone bigger than the Smalls is that the superstores stand between them and their customers.

But of course, that’s not the only problem. The other one arrives on January 1st, courtesy of the European Union. The man who has been leading the fight against it is a cider grower in Somerset called Julian Temperley.

I’d been looking forward to visiting him all week. His Burrow Hill cider had sped the passage of, well, I forget quite how many pleasant evenings. He used the old processes and grew the old fruit. He was largely responsible for the revival of the Kingston Black, an apple which inspires an almost religious awe among those who know it: it’s one of the very few from which cider can be made without blending. But the day did not begin well.

I spotted him hobbling out of one of his barns, one foot in plaster, army surplus trousers, a khaki linen shirt spotted with bleach and cider, roughly shaven, hair like the aftermath of a hurricane.

“Are you Julian Temperley?”

“Yes. Who are you?” A posh voice, a bit offhand.

“George Monbiot. We spoke last week.”

“MONBIOT! Were you the fucking dipstick on the radio this morning?”

“Er – I was on the radio.”

“Right, well you can fuck off.”

“But -”

“It’s basic tolerance, isn’t it? You wouldn’t ban halal meat, would you, but it’s alright to ban hunting, because the Norman aristocrats did it. What fucking nonsense. No, just fuck off.”

“That’s not quite -”

“Show me your hands. You see! Never done a day’s work in your life.”

“Well you talk about tolerance – “

“No. Fuck off.”

I was about to fuck off, but I had a camera crew with me, and the producer took his elbow and walked him off across the farmyard. I’m not sure what she said, but when I caught up with them he turned and said, “Right, where do you want to do this?”

As soon as he got onto apples, he appeared to forget that he was talking to the urban jackboot. He took us round the orchards and his barns, and gave us lunch, with a very good bottle of Kingston Black champagne.

“It’ll be a disaster. Orchards will be classified with airports, car parks and railway sidings as ‘non-agricultural’. One wonders what they’ve got against them. The financial incentive to cut these trees down before the first of January is going to be huge. You can’t blame the farmers: they’ve got a living to make. If the land is excluded, its capital value will go down. It’s quite clearly a complete cock-up.”

There is some confusion about what exactly will and will not qualify for subsidies under the Single Payment Scheme. No one disputes that commercial orchards won’t qualify, or that this represents a discouragement to stay in business. As the British government admits, “Commercial apple growers who have found it difficult to secure contracts may feel they have little alternative but to grub up and claim the Single Payment.”

Some plots, perhaps those with fewer than 50 trees per hectare, or where farmers have already been receiving subsidies for the animals grazing under their trees, should qualify for the new payment. By the time this article is published, it should be clear which land is in and which is out. Either way, we’re certain to lose even more orchards.

Julian won’t be grubbing his trees: he makes his own cider, so he doesn’t rely on anyone else to buy his apples. But for some of his neighbours, whose market is less secure, it’ll be the final blow of the axe. He took us to meet Andrew Foote, whose ten acres of apples were planted by his grandfather. It’s an orchard of precisely the kind that the government agency English Nature says should be preserved: old trees wreathed in mistletoe, with holes in which birds such as woodpeckers and little owls might nest, growing ancient varieties like the Red Worthy, Porter’s Perfection, Michelin and Coat Jersey. It looked magnificent, the great gnarly trees billowing with red and yellow fruit. Blackbirds called to each other across the orchard. But Andrew said he’d grub them out before the New Year –

“- unless things change drastically. I feel very sad about it. Some varieties you probably won’t ever see again. You like to try to keep things going, but those that have the power decide. You’re going to see fires round here as big as the foot and mouth fires. Only it’ll be just trees. It’s a shame. There’s always been apples down here, and I’d like to see my young boy carry on with it. But that future’s gone.”

Julian pointed us off down the road.

“Thanks. You’ve been very helpful.”

“I’m always polite to the media.”

“Always?”

“Almost always.”

The old varieties won’t disappear altogether. They’ll be kept alive by a few enthusiasts. In some places you’ll be able to buy them in farmers’ markets, or find the odd specialist line in the superstores. The charity Common Ground and a few enlightened county councils have been helping to plant community orchards and run Apple Days. But, as Robin Small told me, “the very large growers belonging to big packhouses will survive, a few of the smaller ones will survive if they do what we’ve done and go to the public direct. Everyone in between will have a very, very hard time.”

The first thing I did when I came back from Somerset was to apply to the local allotment association for an orchard plot. I’ve just received the keys, and there’s room for at least 20 trees. I’ll get Nick to help me choose what to plant, but I know that among them will be the Ribston Pippin, the Reverend W Wilkes, the Belle de Boskoop and the Pitmaston pineapple. I will build an apple store and do what it says in Hogg and Bull’s. And I will never buy a Braeburn or a Granny Smith again.

George Monbiot’s film on the decline of the English apple will be broadcast on Newsnight next week.

www.monbiot.com

 

Leave a comment