23 October 2022 was Apple Day @CUBotanicGarden, and after the glorious warm sunlight of the day before, it was a bit disconcerting to be walking down Bateman Street to the back entrance, poised to take my place with my knife and slicer behind the apple-tasting benches, in a torrential downpour. Would anyone turn up in this weather? In fact, there was an excellent turnout, and people queued heroically with their umbrellas up or down, depending, to get inside the marquee, taste samples and buy bags of historic varieties of apples, which are not often found in shops or supermarkets these days.
One of the best things about Apple Day, apart from talking to members of the public, greeting friends, and watching children grimace as they bite into a piece of Rosemary Russet (1830s: a Marmite of an apple, much too sour for many, delicious for others (and I would love to know whether Rosemary was a lady of a very sour disposition)), is the amount of information that I acquire.
We have a whiteboard in the sales area which shows the varieties that are sold out, and the name of Lynn’s Pippin appeared almost before sales had started, apparently because in fact none had been supplied – there were none on the tasting benches. The invaluable East of England Apples and Orchards Project says of it: ‘Bred by William Lynn of Emneth [in west Norfolk, where the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, was rector between 1953 and 1965] in 1942 by crossing Cox’s Orange Pippin with Ellison’s Orange and named in 1952. A medium-sized attractive yellowish-green skinned apple with delicate red stripes and a complex flavour.’
I’ll have to look for it another year, but the one I really wanted to buy was William Crump, second to last in the alphabetical list of offerings which ranged from Adam’s Pearmain (1826) to Winter Gem (1975, a good keeper). I was at the bottom end of the bench, from King of the Pippins (1770s) down to Winter Gem, and so had the opportunity to sample William Crump at an early stage. It was delicious, but as I grabbed my purse and attempted to abandon my post for a few minutes to get a bagful, the name was added to the fatal whiteboard list.
According to the Worcester Orchards website, William Crump was a head gardener at Madresfield Court near Malvern. ‘He is credited with raising the variety and personally exhibited it in 1908 when it received an RHS Award of Merit. It is believed to be a cross between Cox’s Orange Pippin and a Worcester Pearmain’, one of the 28 varieties first bred in Worcestershire, including of course the various Pitmastons, including Pitmaston Pineapple (we had none this year, sadly).
Adam’s (or Adams’s) Pearmain was allegedly bred by one Robert Adams and displayed to the (not then Royal) Horticultural Society of London in 1826. It is also known as the Norfolk Pippin, but according to the great and good Robert Hogg, it should not be: see this, in the 1884 fifth edition of The Fruit Manual:
So more power to the elbow of the Pomological Meeting of the Woolhope Club.
It is some years since I scampered through The Fruit Manual in order to write its blurb, and I had forgotten how fascinating it is – though there is the occasional downer such as ‘Cambridge Pippin, see Bedfordshire Foundling’:
For example, Blenheim Orange (1740), which was selling well, is also known as Blenheim Pippin, Woodstock Pippin, Northwick Pippin and Kempster’s Pippin. Hogg (1884) gives an explanation of the name Kempster’s Pippin, while Northwick is in fact in Worcestershire, though Northwick Pippin does not appear in the Worcestershire Orchards list.
I very much liked (and bought) the new (2000) Herefordshire Russet, as well as some of my favourite Egremont Russet (some people are put off by the sandpapery skin), first marketed in 1872 (Hogg does not mention it in 1884). There is a belief that it was raised by the earl of Egremont at Petworth, but I cannot find confirmation of this.
Another favourite of mine is Howgate Wonder (1915), equally good for eating and cooking in my opinion, and I got two bags of the cooker Cottenham Seedling (1924): not only local, but a vital ingredient when I start making the mincemeat in a week or so’s time.
I was intrigued to know whether this summer’s drought had had much effect on the crop, and was lucky enough to be standing next to a fellow volunteer who is a professional gardener. In his opinion, the problem had been that there was no ‘June drop’ this year, and so unless growers had thinned out the fruit, they would all develop, but much smaller than normal. This was definitely the case with James Grieve (1893): the fruits were half the size I would have expected from my own thirty-year old tree, which was dying when I was making over the garden in 2020, and which I haven’t replaced (yet).
Two other tiny ones were Chivers Delight (1920) from the well known fruit farm at Histon, and Hunthouse Pippin (1883) which I had never come across before. Both were about the size of large conkers, and it was impossible to use the apple slicer to remove the core, as this left almost nothing behind. Illustrations of Chivers Delight (like the one below) suggest that it should normally be at least twice this size. The Hunthouse, which comes from north Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, is a cooker, but preparing these specimens to cook would be a laborious business. Again, pictures suggest something bigger.
The one I liked least was West View Seedling (1932), which had a good, firm texture, but didn’t actually taste of anything – and this is the verdict not just of me (who cannot taste the alleged strawberry flavour in Tydeman’s Early Worcester either) but of the majority of the people who sampled it.
The reason that you don’t often see many of these apples in the shops is that they are not so reliable either in fruiting or in consistent shape as the (dare one say boring and tasteless?) Braeburns, Golden Delicious, etc. which are required by wholesalers and supermarkets especially. Leafing through Hogg (and allowing for the likelihood that there are more synonyms among his varieties than he is aware of), what an amazing number of apples have simply passed out of cultivation! Though I was very excited to talk to a lady who had come over from Northamptonshire with a sample apple, leaf and twig from her 100-year-old tree – the identifiers in the identification tent couldn’t identify it, and will be looking into it further. I do hope it turns out to be something thought lost …
Unresolved question of the day was: is ‘pearmain’ pronounced with the stress on the first syllable or the second? Hogg’s view was that the etymology is from the Latin pyrus magnus, ‘great pear’, and meant a pear-shaped rather than a round apple. Another suggestion is that it derives from the adjective parmensia, ‘of Parma’, but why? Parma is famous for many foodstuffs, but not for apples. The most plausible explanation seems to me to be that it comes from the medieval French parmaindre, to endure, and refers to its keeping qualities: this comes from the philologist Ernest Weekley (1865–1954), who sadly is today less well remembered for his 1921 Etymological Dictionary of Modern English than because his German wife Frieda von Richthofen abandoned him and their three children for one D.H. Lawrence. And with that almost completely irrelevant though interesting fact, I will stop ruminating on apples and eat one instead.