Apple Trees and Local Distinctiveness

Kingsley the ram
Kingsley likes Ribston Pippins

It’s September, and we’ve picked our early apples for juicing – despite the sheeps’ close attention. It’s funny to think of the generations of apple pickers there have been in our orchard. It was on the earliest map of the village there is, and we’re just up the road from a late Roman settlement; I can perfectly well imagine the Saxons having the same arguments with their sheep in the same place.

We’ve recently started to value traditional orchards for their ecology; since 1997 they have been Biodiversity Action Plan priority habitats:

Traditional Orchards are hotspots for biodiversity and have been shown to provide a refuge for over 1800 species from the plant, fungi and animal kingdoms.

Orchard Network

We’re also now valuing traditional local fruit varieties to eat (and drink!) of course, partly for environmental reasons and no thanks to the supermarkets, which aren’t set up to deal with localised purchasing. As for their aesthetic beauty, that’s never been in doubt – our Perry Pears are every bit as amazing in flower as any of the cherry blossom I saw in Japan when we lived there. The clincher for me, though, is the local and historic context of these old trees.

The fruite of apples do differ in greatness, forme, colour and taste; some covered with a red skin, others yellowe or green, varying indefinitely according to the soyle and climate; some very great, some little, and many of a middle sort; some are sweet or tastie, or something sower; most be of a middle taste betweene sweete and sower, to which to distinguish I thinke it impossible…
John Gerarde, 1597 (quoted in The Common Ground Book of Orchards)

No wonder; there are supposedly 6,000 varieties of apple in Britain. Like all the other varieties of traditionally grown top fruit here, they are all closely associated with their own areas and the history and social structure of their local communities. Where we are, in Somerset, the landscape is still dotted with mixed farm cider orchards full of local apple trees, many of them named after their villages. Originating within 10 miles of us, according to the Somerset Pomona we have Cadbury, Dunkerton’s Late, Honeystring, Neverblight, Norton Bitters, Pennard Bitter, Pig’s Snout, Porter’s Perfection, Silver Cup, Somerset, Sweet Pethyre, Yarlington Mill… And historical apple trees? You can still buy varieties dating back to Roman times. We sell trees grown from a graft of Isaac Newton’s tree and Hunthouse, the Yorkshire variety that Captain Cook took with him on his travels to fight scurvy.
One of the things I am most happy that we have done is to help Common Ground promote as many of these local varieties as we can and to help Ian Roger sell them. To my enormous pleasure we are now even selling Perry Pears and Mazzards (edible wild cherries) to add to traditional fruit trees like Mulberries, Medlars and Quinces and local varieties of Gages, Plums, Damsons, Pears, and Cherries. Beauty of Stoke, Claygate Pearmain, Cornish Gilliflower, Crawley Beauty, Keswick Codlin – there will be apple trees or other fruit trees which are local to you. If you had the choice – and they were similar prices – would you buy a sofa from Ikea or one designed by a local expert for your house? Even if you’re thinking about just popping a small fruit tree into your back garden don’t just pick up something from B&Q, but find a local variety. Chances are it will do better – and you’ll be contributing to a rich and ancient local heritage.

The lesser weevil?

Mistletoe Marble Moth
I left an old cider apple tree unpruned over the last couple of years. It’s knackered, and it had a really good crop of Mistletoe on it. I pruned about a third of it off and our older two children took it up to London in 20 big bunches, which they sold for £100 (including a donation to Common Ground – allegedly the cheque is in the post). Had I kept the tree in decent nick it might have produced apples worth something well under £5. Bizarre. I’m trying to square this peculiar reality with the news that the Mistletoe Marble Moth (Celypha Woodiana) is disappearing because of the shrinking number of traditional orchards. And what about the poor old Mistletoe Weevil (Ixapion variegatum), I ask myself? So I suppose from an economic and environmental point of view we should be planting orchards and turning them over to mistletoe production. Curioser and curioser.

Heritage Fruit Trees… A National Treasure ?

I had a very sad trip to Scotts Nursery at Merriott today. Scotts were a a byword for quality and choice in fruit trees, and had been trading since before the 1850s until the recent sudden and premature death of John Scott Wallis. One consequence of this tragic tale is that all their stock is now being auctioned off, with potentially catastrophic results for a number of rare traditional varieties which Scotts alone sold. Common Ground told me about someone locally who bought 300 apple trees at auction last week, of unspecified types “beginning with B, M, or W.” He has probably ended up with a lot of Bramleys, but he might have Bridgewater Pippins or Byford Wonders. He’ll never know, in all likelihood. Ian Roger of R.V. Roger, one of our key suppliers, has very kindly agreed to help to persuade the auctioneers to identify, re-categorize, and hopefully sell us some of the rarer trees. Let me know if you would like to be involved.

Apple Day

Apple Picking at Ern's Orchard
Apple Picking at Ern's Orchard

…is always bathed with sunshine in our village, and we always get a good turn-out of pickers. This year we had 30+ at one point or another, including a school of students from Bristol and a pod of investment bankers enjoying a bucolic weekend. The secret life of a village is intriguing. Although the yield on Ern’s cider apple orchard was down this year we must have picked over 2 tonnes of apples before the lure of tea and cakes distracted us. Fingers crossed for the 2009 Bullbeggar which will go for pressing later this week.

Bullbeggar Cider

Bullbeggar Cider Label
Bullbeggar Cider Label
When we moved to Somerset in 2001 picked apples falling into buckets was the defining sound of autumn. We live opposite a traditional cider orchard, and for weeks from the beginning of September farmer and father-in-law picked for the local factory. The road to Shepton was full of tractors pulling apple carts. Then one year it was quiet; the factory had started to import concentrate from China, and there was no market for any local apples at all.
It seemed a shame, not just economically. The orchard, typical of local cider orchards, has a good mix of mature trees and is a real asset, not least in terms of its biodiversity value. In 2007 a group of us decided to form a village co-op and turn cider makers to keep it alive. We chose the name of the cider from an ancient local legend; the Bullbeggar of Creech Hill (which overlooks the village) is a restless spirit who waylays folk late at night. The history of human settlement on the hill goes back to the neolithic, so no-one’s quite sure where he came from.
Every year now we invite everyone to come along to pick on Apple Day and lay on a little spread for helpers. In 2008 we harvested about two and a half tonnes in no time at all, as we had half the village turn out. We don’t have our own press – yet – so we haul it off to Hecks Cider Farm for pressing, then bring the juice back to our own cider barn to ferment and rack. Some we then carbonate and bottle, some we leave in the wood for local events.
We’ve nearly recouped our investment now, thanks largely to the indefatigable Nick Smallwood, and we’ll be donating any profits to the village hall and church. The cider’s not bad either.

Perry Pears

Perry pear tree in autumn
Perry pear tree in autumn
We live round the corner from Shepton Mallet, home of Babycham and now Brothers Pear Cider, so you might think that perry, to pears what cider is to apples, is big around here.
It’s not. The new pear ciders are either made from imported concentrated pear juice with sugar added, or they’re cider with synthetic pear flavouring. Traditional perry is actually pretty much impossible to produce commercially as the trees are difficult to harvest and the juice difficult to ferment. The pears are inedible and crops erratic. In any case the trees are too big to spray. So why bother with it?
Perry is part of our heritage. It was most likely introduced to the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border by either the Romans or Normans. Local conditions suited the trees; rain and sunshine, and deep soils. Its long history means that there are estimated to be over 100 varieties in Gloucestershire, with many more synonyms rich in local meaning. Thus Yellow Huffcap is also Black Huffcap, Chandos Huffcap, Green Huffcap, Kings Arms and Yellow Longland. Other varieties are Mumblehead, Merrylegs, Lumberskull, Drunkers and Devildrink, Pint, Ducksbarn, Green Horse, Holmer and Nailer.
Perry pear blossom
Perry pear blossom
The trees are beautiful. We have planted Thorn, Butt, Brandy and Parsonage in our orchard and they are all very healthy looking trees, even given recent wet summers. No disease and good strong growth; Parsonage is the biggest variety we have, which will grow to the size of a reasonable sized oak. Even if you completely disregarded the fruit, they are worth growing for their blossom alone, which is early and fantastically plentiful.
It’s not just the blossom (great for our bees!) that makes them a really good tree for biodiversity. They are typically much longer lived than apple trees, and – as a rule of thumb – veteran trees will support more species. Traditional apple orchards are themselves great havens of biodiversity, but Jon Ardle quotes a 2004 survey of just 13.3 acres of three traditional perry orchards which recorded an amazing 1,800 species of plants, animals, and fungi.
Lastly, the perry itself. To be honest, I’ve tasted some pretty indifferent perry – but then I’ve tasted some pretty indifferent cider over the years. And I’ve tasted some lovely perry too. The shows are a good place to sample it; I had a lovely drop at the Royal Welsh and there is a Festival of Perry at the Malvern Show, 26-27 September.
We currently sell a perry tree collection and will be selling individual varieties later in the year – do let us know if you might be interested.

Courtesy of Rowan Isaac. The autumnal picture was taken at Minchew’s in Worcestershire and the blossom was at Gregg’s Pit, Much Marcle.