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Research in the early part of the 21st century indicated that all sweet apples arose originally in a small area of Tian Shan on Kazakhstan's border with China. It is likely that they gradually spread into Europe through the Middle East and several manuscripts from ancient Greece, including Homer's Odyssey, refer to apples and describe apple orchards. There is evidence that apples grew wild in Britain in the Neolithic period but it was the Romans who first introduced varieties with sweeter and greater taste. The earliest known mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in about 885 AD in his English translation of "Gregory's Pastoral Care".
After the Roman occupation of Britain, many orchards were abandoned due to invasions by Jutes, Saxons and Danes. However, following the Norman Conquest improved varieties were introduced from France, which included the Costard. Orchards were developed within the grounds of monasteries and the raising of new varieties was undertaken by cross-pollination. The orchards of the monastery at Ely were particularly famous. Gradually, more orchards were cultivated and by the 13th century the Costard variety was being grown in many parts of England. Sellers of this apple were known as "costardmongers" and hence the word "costermonger".
The Wars of the Roses and the Black Death led to a decline in the production of both apples and pears in England until Henry VIII instructed his fruiterer, Richard Harris, to identify and introduce new varieties, which were planted in his orchard at Teynham in Kent. At about the same time, the red skinned Pippin was introduced from France but the most common apple in Tudor times was the Queene.
Until the agricultural revolution of the 18th century, methods of raising apples and pears were relatively haphazard. Towards the end of that century Thomas Andrew Knight undertook a series of careful experiments in pollination which led to the development of many improved varieties. His work greatly influenced many nurserymen in the 19th century including Thomas Laxton who raised several well-known varieties including Laxton's Superb. The developing of new varieties reached its height in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the work of gardeners employed by major estates in England and also by nurseryman who concentrated on producing apples with outstanding taste. Ribston Pippin, a favourite apple of the early Victorians, was superseded by possibly the most famous of all eating apples, Cox's Orange Pippin. This outstanding variety was introduced in 1850 having been raised by Richard Cox, a retired brewer from Bermondsey. The Bramley Seedling, a single purpose culinary apple that remains the finest apple in the world for cooking was first exhibited in 1876, having been grown from a pip of unknown origin in 1809.
Throughout the Victorian age fruit growing tended to be carried out in small orchards attached to agricultural holdings. Apart from the apples sold at market, they were grown to supplement the farmers' own needs and to provide cider for his labourers in lieu of wages, a practice which became illegal in 1917. After the First World War several specialist research centres were developed which investigated improved orchard production methods, the control of pests and diseases as well as the raising new varieties.
After the Second World War new rootstocks were introduced which enabled the height of apple trees to be reduced. This allowed harvesting to take place from the ground thus making long ladders redundant and reducing the costs of labour for picking and pruning. Additionally, the smaller trees allowed sunlight to reach a greater proportion of the developing fruit, which increased the density, and consistency of fruit colour. Trees could be planted closer together which resulted in greater productivity.
Once the UK became a member of the EEC, there was no restriction on the importing of apples from abroad during the English season. This led to English growers facing great competition from high-yielding varieties which were difficult to grow in UK, as they required a warmer climate. Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Granny Smith were the three most important of these varieties which were heavily promoted and advertised. By contrast, English growers were producing much lower yielding varieties, which had been bred for taste rather than yield. As a result, they were unable to compete with the relatively low priced imports. Many English orchards were taken out of production due to lack of profitability and replanted with other crops during the final twenty-five years of the last century.
In the early 1990s, Gala and Braeburn, both varieties which had been raised in New Zealand were introduced to the UK market and rapidly increased in popularity. Trial orchards were planted in England and despite initial cultural difficulties English growers began to produce these varieties with great success. Subsequently, other new varieties were trialled and planted including for example Jazz, Kanzi, Rubens, Cameo and Zari. All these apples share the attributes of great taste and flavour, vibrant skin colours and fine orchard performance.
Despite the outstanding work of researchers in raising new varieties, the primary factor responsible for the outstanding taste of English apples has been our climate. The absence of extreme temperatures but adequate rainfall allows our apples to grow relatively slowly and to develop their full flavour potential. This occurs to a greater extent than with apples grown up elsewhere, even with varieties that have been raised overseas. Our climate prevents us from producing some varieties but those which are grown in UK have unrivalled taste and flavour.
The National Collection of fruit trees at Brogdale near Faversham contains some 1,900 different varieties of apple trees. All would have been popular at some time in the past. However, the vast majority no longer meet the demands of modern consumers or they suffer from defects in production. The deficiencies include blemished appearance, minute size, unappealing taste or poor yields and susceptibility to damage from pests and diseases. Thus, they are unsuitable for commercial production but they provide a vital gene bank for future varietal development.
The introduction of the latest varieties coincided with greater demand from both consumers and retailers for locally grown apples. This increased the confidence of English growers who began to invest heavily in new, highly productive orchards and innovative equipment such as picking trains to improve efficiencies. Many modern orchards were planted much more intensively than previously with up to 3,500 trees per hectare supported by posts and wires. Much research was undertaken to minimise the use of chemicals and to make greater use of beneficial insects. Additionally, growers invested heavily in new packhouses and cold stores, all designed to operate efficiently and minimise the use of energy. As a result of all these factors, since 2003 there has been a massive revival in the English apple industry. The length of the season has been increased with several varieties now available in April and May whilst English apples have increased their share of the total market from a low point of 23% in 2003 to 38% in 2011.
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The English Apples and Pears Ltd. iPhone App allows users to check the origin of the fruit. In the UK apples are sold with a 3 or 4 digit label which identifies the variety and source. Click here.
English apples have long been renowned for their outstanding taste and flavour. Find out why.