Upon St Crispin’s Day, what better way to celebrate England than to go to the Apple Day at Cambridge University Botanic Garden? For the second time, I had the fun of being a helper, slicing fruit for tasting, and bagging up the interesting varieties on sale (not a Golden Delicious in sight). BTW, A major change in my lifestyle resulted from discovering at Apple Day two years ago the wonderful corer/slicer tool.
It was a sunny day (the goddess Pomona was clearly smiling upon us), and I glided past the queues at the Hills Road gate, waving my volunteer identity tag. The autumn colours at the garden are wonderful at the moment, and there was much for the visitors to gaze at en route to the marquees on the lawn.
There was the cheering prospect of ample non-fruit refreshment at the café and at special guest food stalls; apple juice and cider tasting and sales were also on offer.
You could also get advice on pruning and tree care, and on identifying varieties.
Inside the tent, the first job was to keep ‘my’ share of the thirty or so labelled plates of tasting samples replenished – no mean task, as the queues forming outside the marquee just kept coming.
I managed not to slice into myself while chopping, though the fingertips of my latex gloves did get a bit ragged … I noticed that one of my favourite apples, the bite-sized Pitmaston Pineapple, was already sold out at midday, much to the frustration of many people who, having tasted it, were hooked, as I am. Query: were all apples originally as small as this very old variety, and was improved size one of the qualities sought by early breeders?
Before my second shift, I took a quick tour of the other events and displays: the owls and hawks were certainly not eating apples …
Back in the bagging area, business was extremely brisk, and more and more varieties were selling out. Most of the names were not familiar, as of course these apples are simply not usually available except in specialist shops: they are not heavy croppers, and they don’t obligingly come in a standard size with immaculate unblemished skin, so are of no use to the big buyers, the supermarkets.
From Adam’s Pearmain (1826) to Worcester Pearmain (1870s) – pearmain, by the way, meaning pear-like, though descriptive of the apple’s shape, not its taste – all the apples were grown in East Anglia. There were also three Cambridgeshire cooking apples available: Barnack Beauty (1840s – gorgeous to eat if you like a really sharp taste, and also used for cider-making); Morley’s Seedling (1920s), from Fordham; and Cottenham Seedling (1924), which looks quite fantastic, and will definitely feature in this season’s mincemeat chez moi.
We sold out of almost everything except Red Windsor (1985 – which in my opinion tastes like cotton wool) and James Grieve (1895) of which I have my own tree (and a yearly glut, and a freezer full of pulp for almost instant apple crumble, since it does not store well).
So, a really Grand Day Out, clearly enjoyed by hundreds of people – and thanks to the people at the Botanics whose hard work before and during made this delightfully English event possible! However, the long tradition of apple-growing in this country, and the legends attached to the fruit, tend to make us forget that the tree is not native – the wild ancestor of the modern Malus domestica originated in central Asia, and the name Almaty (the former capital of Kazakhstan) may mean ‘mother of apples’. The Romans introduced the fruit to Britain, and one of the most famous medieval orchards was at the monastery originally founded by St Etheldreda at Ely.
Henry VIII apparently encouraged the discovery and introduction of new types of apple; but it was not until the agrarian revolution at the end of the eighteenth century that the breeding of new varieties became systematic, one of the pioneers being Thomas Andrew Knight, the modest horticulturalist whose studies of the way plants grow were so important to the emerging science of botany.
Many of our most famous varieties (still – just – holding their own against the likes of Red Delicious and Braeburn), such as Laxton’s Superb, Cox’s Orange Pippin, and its offspring, Ellison’s Orange were bred in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and take their names from their breeders. Others, like the Cottenham Seedling and the Worcester Pearmain, refer to their locality. One of the earliest named English apples was the medieval costard, and the men (and women) who sold it were called costard-, and then coster-mongers.
I wondered if the two saints of 25 October had an apple named after them. There is an ‘Crispin’, but as an offspring of Golden Delicious it is definitely not a candidate for sainthood, so I offer this marketing suggestion free to the apple breeders of England! I’m not done with apples yet, as October’s Object of the Month will be apple-related – watch this space…