Apples - lost and found
While making this week’s edition of The Food Programme, I found myself walking across a patch of land in Husthwaite, a village nestling on the southern slopes of the North Yorkshire Moors. The reason for the trudge was to look at an old, gnarled apple tree that had toppled over due to its weight and age. But, even with its roots exposed, each year it blossoms in the spring, then fruits in the autumn. And having looked at the tree, and its apples, no apple experts currently have any idea what variety it is.
Our great national apple varieties often started as random acts of nature. Apples are either diploids - requiring fertilisation by pollen from two other apple trees - or triploids - requiring three - which means when you plant a pip, you're taking genetic pot luck. And that's a truly wonderful thing for lovers of apples as infinite varieties are possible. The towering Bramley Apple began life as a tree grown from pips in the Nottinghamshire town of Southwell, and many other well known apples started life as chance seedlings and benefited from a mixture of care, science and good luck: Granny Smith, Braeburn, even the Cox's Orange Pippin.
Husthwaite is now trying to revive its status as an orchard village, one of the few such villages in the north that grew specifically for the market. They've replanted a lot of land with fruit trees and now produce their own juice and cider. This is light years away from the commercial apple orchards of Kent, where serried rows of dwarf trees allow for high yields, uniformity and easy picking - perfect fruit for the supermarket shelf.
So, should we allow the sad specimen in Husthwaite to die anonymous? The villagers don't think so - grafts have been taken, and experts are working away at finding out once and for all if this is a newly discovered local variety that ought to be catalogued and its characteristics listed for posterity. Who knows what tomorrow's apple growers will need to cope with, and to date it's the chance seedlings that have had a better strike rate in making it big than the research stations. Maybe this broken down tree holds the genes to something we just might need in future? After all, it clearly knows a thing or two about disease resistance and climate change to have got this far.
As for apple-lovers in the Capital, inspired by the idea of flash mobs, we've now got flash harvests - the mobilising of groups of growers and pickers to improve London’s wastelands with orchards. Organised groups get together to harvest fruit trees on public ground and split the bounty. Get involved in time for apple day.
Have you found any interesting varieties growing in surprising places? And what's cooking? Is a Bramley apple tart your windfall gain or do other varieties make you crumble?
Simon Parkes is presenter of Radio 4's The Food Programme this week.