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The English apple is disappearing

In June 1899, Sabine Baring-Gould, an English rector, collector of folk songs, and author of a truly astonishing volume of prose, was completing «The Book of the West‘, a two-volume study of Devon and Cornwall. Baring-Gould, who had fifteen children and kept a tame bat, wrote more than a thousand works of literature, including some thirty novels, a biography of Napoleon and an influential study of werewolves. In the preface to his latest letter, he wrote that it was neither a guide nor a history of the counties, which would make it too difficult to transmit. Instead, Baring-Gould chose to «select some incident or some biography» to clarify the places he described. The town of Honiton was notable for its lace; Torquay for its caves; Tiverton for Old Snow, a kind male wizard who died several years ago.

Baring-Gould devoted thirteen pages of his description of Crediton, «a quaint, sleepy place» on the banks of the River Creedy, in the heart of Devon, to his apples. For months of the year, the city was flooded with fruit and cider. The ground all around was red. In the orchards, the trees were laden with everything from «griggles» (small, stunted apples left over for the kids) to legendary cider varieties like Kingston Black and Cherry Pearmain. In autumn, Baring-Gould wrote: “The grass in the orchard is brilliant crimson and gold, as if studded with jewels. Life in the Creedy Valley was steeped in ancient apple traditions such as “S. Frankin’s Days’ in May, when the devil might bring a late frost; shooting blind loads into the bare branches of apple trees on Old Christmas Day to bring good luck; and «wassailing» trees, or singing to their health. At the beginning of the century, hard times came for apple growers, the rise of beer and imports from America. But these threats were receding. «Trees are having their good times again,» Baring-Gould wrote.

Trees are not having a good time right now. One blustery morning a few weeks ago I drove to Crediton to visit Sandford Orchards, the largest remaining cider house in town. The factory was cut into the side of a steep hill so it could stay cool all year round. One of his oak vats, the General, dates from 1903 and holds ten thousand gallons of fermenting apple juice. When I arrived, the owner, Barny Butterfield, was talking to a colleague about the flavor profile of the latest batch of Devon Dry, one of the company’s ciders. «There is no recipe!» Butterfield told me a little giddily.

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Butterfield reopened the cidery in 2014. (The original resident, Creedy Valley Cider, closed in 1967.) Since then, he has become a prominent — and at times reclusive — advocate for Britain’s encyclopedic apple variety, of more than two and a half thousand cultivars. The first rootstocks were most likely brought by the Romans. The Saxons wrote the fruit into land and myth. (Avalon, an Arthurian paradise, means «land of apples.») The Victorians left melanzane for them. («Aubergine«, Italian for «eggplant», comes from «little insana,” or “crazy apple.”) Apples are now the national fruit. But the British apple industry is deeply in crisis. Most people agree that the market, which is divided into dessert – or table – apples and cider apples, is distorted in one way or another. Butterfield, who is forty-seven, took me upstairs to his office, which was littered with old stoneware jugs and scientific papers from the 1950s detailing the juice composition of cider and apple varieties, and sat down at his desk. «We’re going to the crater,» he said.

When Baring-Gould wrote of Crediton, Devon had twenty-six thousand acres of apple orchards. Ninety percent of them are believed to be gone. And the growers who are left are quickly losing money. According to British Apples & Pears Limited (BAPL), the trade body that represents the country’s three hundred apple and pear growers, the cost of producing apples in the UK is set to increase by thirty percent from 2021 – the increase is mainly driven by rising energy. prices and labor costs. Retail prices only increased by a quarter over the same period. «So there’s a big gap,» Ali Capper, BAPL’s executive chairman, told me last week. “Watch that gap, I started to say.

Capper grows cider and dessert apples overlooking the Malvern Hills, on the border between Worcestershire and Herefordshire. She said the cost of producing a pack of six Gala apples, a cultivar first developed in New Zealand in the 1930s that is one of Britain’s most popular apples, is currently one pound and sixpence. But the supermarkets didn’t pay. «I would be surprised if there was any retailer in the UK that paid the pound,» Capper said.

The UK food market is an oligopoly. Eight retailers control ninety-two percent of sales. A recent report by the House of Lords Horticulture Committee described their power as «monstrous». They can come from cold-stored Galas from around the world. (About sixty percent of apples sold in the UK are imported.) For cultural reasons that may have something to do with the grunt, British consumers like a small apple that fits easily in the hand. American and Asian markets prefer larger fruit, so foreign farmers can often sell smaller apples rejected by their own retailers to British grocers at a discount. «It’s very hard to compete with that,» Capper said.

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The combination of skyrocketing costs and undercutting with cheaper similar apples from overseas is proving unmanageable. “It happened very quickly,” Capper told me. «We’ve had businesses go from being profitable and able to cope with volatility to losing money.» As a general rule, British apple growers tend to plant between eight hundred thousand and one and a half million new trees each year to refresh their orchards and keep up with changing tastes. In recent years, the total number has been close to four hundred thousand. «If you don’t invest as a sector, you’re not going to stay in the market,» Capper said. “And if you can’t stay in the market, then you’re out. Last fall, a survey found that out of a hundred fruit and vegetable growers, forty-nine expected to go bankrupt in the next twelve months.

While all UK apple growers are suffering, they are not seeing the crisis equally. Capper struck me as phlegmatic about the power of supermarkets. «Loyalty is gone,» she said. «It’s all about buying cheap.» She was also unsentimental about the rise of generic, global apple varieties — often characterized by white flesh, a crisp bite and the ability to store well or hold their «pressure» for months — many of which have been developed. from apple growers in Australia. The tastiest apple at Britain’s National Fruit Show for eight of the past ten years has been Jazz, the marketing name for the Scifresh cultivar – a cross between Gala and Braeburn, two New Zealand varieties – first developed in 1985.

Capper told me the sector was going through a moment comparable to the one it experienced in the late 1970s when French farmers started exporting Golden Delicious to the UK under the slogan ‘Le Crunch’. «It almost killed British industry,» she said. “Obviously, a huge amount of orchards were lost. And then there’s been a refocusing of the industry on varieties that can compete.» Of the twenty-five or so apple varieties now grown commercially in Britain, only nine originated here. «There’s a lot of hand-squeezing involved,» Capper said. «But the truth is that these traditional varieties have been very difficult to grow. Yields have been unpredictable and the shelf life is short. Between 2015 and 2020, the annual harvest of Cox’s Orange Pipin has declined since it was first introduced. to the market in the 1950s – by more than fifty percent.

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For Butterfield, it’s advice of desperation. «Cox, Egremont Russet,» he said sympathetically, referring to the rusty-looking but delicious apple grown on the Earl of Egremont’s estate at Petworth in the late nineteenth century. “I mean, Egremont Russet—what a bloody apple.» In his view, global supply chains and a few standardized cultivars have separated the British population from the eye. «One of the problems we have is: What are we saving? We’re saving a grim red fruit that tastes absolutely nothing,» Butterfield told me.» There’s nothing to say.» If you could put Egremont Russet back in someone’s hands—put it back in their lunchbox—they’re transported for a moment because of the amount of flavor and richness, you might be thrilled. . . . The problem is that big the British public is not exposed to it.

To remind us, Butterfield and a team of biologists from the University of Bristol have been working to record and map every variety of apple tree they can find in the West of England. The project began in 2017 when Liz Copas – the last pomologist at Long Ashton Research Station, the now-defunct government fruit and cider research institute – discovered that breeding records for a group of new cider cultivars known as Girls had been lost. Three crop scientists – Keith Edwards, Amanda Burridge and Mark Winfield – adapted a form of DNA technology used to identify different strains of wheat to take a genomic ‘fingerprint’ from the leaves of the maidens.

Since then, the apple tree database has grown to include every cultivar from the National Fruit Collection in Brogdale, Kent, and hundreds more from the West Country. When we met with Edwards, he told me, «I’m worried about conversations like this because one of the things it does is trigger an avalanche of emails from people who have an interesting apple tree in their garden.» In 2020, he and the team received around eight hundred tree samples – including whole branches – in his laboratory in Bristol. «Most of them were Coxes or Bramleys,» Edwards said. (Bramleys are the most popular cooking apples in the country.) «That’s fine.»

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