Fallen Fruit

An insane European ruling will be the final straw for the English apple

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 30th October 2004.

It takes a while to work out what it is about Hogg and Bull’s Herefordshire Pomona. What it is that, two or three minutes after you’ve started lifting the heavy pages, makes you, quite unexpectedly, want to cry. It’s not, or not only, the pictures. The apples and pears painted by a Miss Alice Ellis can almost be rolled off the page and bitten. She added nothing, took nothing away. Where she saw warts, she painted warts, where scabs, scabs. And yet they glow. They are more real than – than any real apple you’ll find in the shops today.

It’s not, or not only, the text. It’s a classic of late Victorian natural history, pedantic and passionate. Here, among quotes from Shakespeare and Homer and Clare, are recipes for orchard manure, dissertations on specific gravity, the cordon-system of growing pears, Roman cooking, the “laws of Vegetable Physiology”, pests, fermentation, soil, grafting. There are chapters on great fruit growers, transcripts of folk songs, unlikely claims about the longevity of cider drinkers.

Then you see it. It’s the names. The names of the fallen. Foxwhelp, Sheep’s Snout, Hogshead, Duck’s Bill, Black Wilding, Brown Cockle, Monstrous Pippin, Burr Knot, Broadtail, Hagloe Crab, Eggleton Styre, Peasgood’s Nonesuch, Tom Putt, Bitter-scale, Slack-my-girdle, Bastard Rough Coat, Bloody Turk. The list runs into thousands. It is a history of rural England, a poem in pomology, rough and bitter and sad.

Sprouting from every name is a tree of knowledge. Before I read this book, I thought an apple was something you picked and ate some time around October. Now I know the best dessert apples are those that must be stored for a month or more. There are some that aren’t ready to come off the tree until December; others that are unfit to eat unless they’ve been in the cellar from October to March. There is one variety, the Winter Greening (Shakespeare’s Apple-John), that can be kept for two years. There are apples that taste of aniseed, banana, pineapple, caraway, and apples that can’t be eaten in any state, but are grown for making cider. Some are the size of walnuts: the smaller they are, Hogg and Bull contend, the better the cider.

Dr Hogg and Dr Bull were commissioned to write the Pomona by the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, a society of Herefordshire doctors, vicars and farmers famed for its fungus forays. “These forays,” the doctors lamented, “could not fail to impress upon the members the sad state of neglect into which the orchards of Herefordshire had been allowed to fall … the observation was made that ‘celebrated as Herefordshire is for its orchards, it was very remarkable that so few of the best varieties of apples should appear in the markets, or fruit shops, of Hereford’.”

It’s hard to see what they were complaining about. Between 1876 and 1883 (when they were compiling the Pomona), Herefordshire’s orchards grew by 10%, to 27,000 acres. Altogether, 186,000 acres of England grew fruit trees. Today, that figure is 44,000. The area under apple trees has halved since 1994; the amount of fruit they produce has fallen by 50% since 1999.

Some of the reasons for this tragedy would have been familiar to the pomologists. “The power of the steam engine by land and by sea,” they complained, “lessens expenditure by cheapness of conveyance, thus wider markets are offered for all articles of trade … Competition becomes world-wide … To individuals and localities the result is often ruinous … American and Continental apples are brought year by year in larger quantities to supply our great centres of population. They are always noted for those first two marketable qualities ‘size’ and ‘beauty of colour’. ”

But our remaining orchards are also threatened by something they wouldn’t have anticipated: the EU, and one of the maddest decisions it has made since it determined that the carrot was a fruit. On January 1 next year, the European subsidy system changes. From then on, production subsidies will start to be withdrawn and agricultural land will instead qualify for something called a Single Farm Payment of about £200 a hectare. While every other kind of farming, even growing ornamental shrubs in greenhouses, will be eligible, commercial orchards will be classified as “non-agricultural”. And January 1 is the cut-off date: if you don’t grub up your orchards by the end of the year, you and your descendants will be £200 a hectare poorer, every year for the foreseeable future.

But to understand the potential impact of this measure, we must first understand how close to the edge our surviving fruit growers have already been pushed, as a result of that problem with which Drs Hogg and Bull were familiar: the lessening of expenditure by cheapness of conveyance. Let us begin in the world’s least likely centre of biodiversity: Slough. Here, amid the gasometers and yellow brick estates, we find Nick Houston, tweed cap, red beard, fag and jackknife, shoving his way through the jungle. “Golden russet. It’s in here somewhere.” Chainsaw boots. Square basket knocking against his thighs. Then a voice from the undergrowth. “Here it is. Take a look at that. I don’t know which golden russet, because this one isn’t in the National Fruit Collection. They’ve got one, but it doesn’t match. Stores till June. Not fit to eat till February. Bloody marvellous.”

I first met Nick last winter, when I wanted to buy some fruit trees. I had a copy of The Fruit And Vegetable Finder, published in 1995. It listed JC Allgrove’s as the last of the great nurseries of the Thames Valley. In the 1940s, it kept 1,000 varieties of apple tree; in 1995 it still sold 250. I rang the number in the book and a woman answered. “I’m sorry, dear,” she said, “we shut down a couple of years ago. But you could talk to Nick. He might have something left over.”

Nick had taken over the nursery, unpaid, when the last Mr Allgrove fell ill. But it hadn’t been commercially viable for years. The orchards that once bought the young trees had been grubbed up. Now the only calls came from enthusiasts. “I’ve been trying to keep it ticking over,” he said, “but they’ve had to put the land on the market, so it’s pretty well finished.”

Nick found me half a dozen saplings he had grafted a couple of years before. That was almost the last of the stock. When I returned in September, to see the old trees in fruit, there was a new lock on the gate. The new owners were sympathetic and let us in. But the land hadn’t come cheap and keeping a forest of 250 forgotten varieties of apple tree isn’t the kind of business model the bank manager would appreciate.

No one knows exactly what the orchard contains, but besides the golden russet, Nick is convinced that somewhere in the jungle is a St Augustine’s Orange and a King Harry – both officially extinct. Hardly any of the breeds there are still grown commercially.

If you blot out the outskirts of Slough, creeping over the tops of the trees, the orchard looks like a 15th-century painting of the Garden of Eden. Nick showed me a Tudor apple, the Devonshire Quarrenden, deep purple and an inch and a half across. “Juicy, aromatic, soon goes over.” A few yards away was a cooker, the Reverend W Wilkes, raised at the turn of the century by the first Mr Allgrove: pale, almost spherical, pulling the boughs to the ground. Some of the apples must have weighed two pounds. Nick picked me a St Edmund’s Pippin, russeted, yellow-green, sweet and lemony, far better than the gritty Egremont Russet the superstores call the connoisseur’s apple.

There was a Miller’s Seedling, small, striped green and red, the juiciest, sweetest fruit I’ve ever eaten. “It used to fill the London markets, but today, because it’s small and doesn’t keep, no one’s interested.” The Golden Noble, primrose yellow, “more vitamin C than any other cooker”. An Ellison’s Orange, which I knew the moment I tried it. “Everyone used to have one of these in his garden,” said Nick, and I remembered, though I had never known the name, that my father had one in his. You couldn’t mistake it for anything else: the flesh tastes faintly but distinctly of Pernod.

“Ahh! Belle de Boskoop. The wife practically sued this one for adultery. It’s gorgeous.” A Pitmaston Pineapple: conical yellow apples hanging, perfectly spaced, like Christmas tree baubles. “Right now it’s inedible. But leave it till December and it tastes of pineapple and honey. And what do they plant? Bloody Fiesta!”

“Why? Why won’t they plant the old kinds?”

“Supermarkets. There seems to be a fatwa on home-grown apples. They’re interested only in consistent appearance. They dictate what gets grown, how big it is, what colour, how it’s picked and stored. They’re not interested in taste. I think they’re round the bend.”

On the way back to the gates, Nick showed me the old farm sheds. In one was a pile of stakes on which names were painted in big black letters, markers for the old trees. Nick rummaged through the pile: “Extinct, extinct, extinct.” He was still grafting a few of the rare varieties, in case anyone rang. “Otherwise,” he said, “that’s it. It’s sad, but what can you do?”

The problem was the commercial buyers had gone. When the nursery was founded, long before the Pomona was published, the land around Slough was one of Britain’s best fruit-growing regions. It split the London markets with Kent. At St Mary’s Church in Harmondsworth, five miles from the nursery, I found a big tabular grave in grim brown sandstone, where lay one “Richard Cox Esq, who departed this life on May 20th 1845”. Cox crossed a Blenheim Orange with a Ribston Pippin. The result sped the downfall of his beloved English orchards: New Zealand could produce the Cox’s Orange Pippin more cheaply than we could. By the time it gets to Britain, it tastes of kitchen towels dipped in glucose, but it’s cheap and it looks right – and that, it seems, is what counts.

Three miles from Cox’s grave is where the best orchard land used to be: around a sleepy Middlesex village called Heathrow. The apple trees and strawberry farms were flattened to build runways, and now “the power of the steam engine by land and by sea” is augmented by the jet engine. Exotic fruits from all over the world land on the grubbed-out orchards.

Step into any supermarket and you’ll see the result. I chose Sainsbury’s in Taunton, for two reasons. It is in the middle of one of Britain’s last surviving apple-growing regions, and 300 yards from the store there was a farmers’ market at which (it was the beginning of the season) five varieties of English apple were being sold, from an orchard a couple of miles away.

There were 12 breeds of apple in Sainsbury’s, if you included the conventional and organic versions of the same varieties. Two were English: a huge, glossy ball of hybridised pap called an Elstar, and a Bramley. The Bramley reminded me of what Nick had said about the supermarkets’ specifications. Allowed to ripen on the branch, it is pale green with plenty of red, the flesh is soft and fluffy, and it cooks beautifully. But the superstores demand a pure dark green apple. When Nick worked in commercial orchards, he was told to bend down the Bramleys’ branches, so the fruit was shielded from sunlight, in order to stop it changing colour. This also stopped it acquiring flavour or sweetness, but that didn’t seem to matter. “They told us to pick it unripe, when it was as appetising as a cricket ball and you’d need a pneumatic drill to get into it.”

Anyway, even the ripest, sweetest Bramley ever grown doesn’t touch the Reverend W Wilkes for texture and flavour. But the Wilkes, or the Golden Noble, or the Arthur Turner, couldn’t, unlike the concrete Bramley, be fired through a barn door at 30 paces and land unscathed, so it doesn’t meet the superstores’ two overriding specifications: that it keeps for ever and won’t bruise.

There were Royal Galas and Golden Delicious from France, organic Royal Galas from Italy, Pink Lady, Braeburn, Granny Smith and Sundowner from South Africa, and Jazz, Braeburn and organic Pink Lady from New Zealand. They were all big, juicy and consistent in appearance, but eat them blindfolded and you’d be hard put to distinguish one from another.

But the oddest item was the Cox’s Orange Pippin from Holland. It was odd for three reasons. First, it didn’t look like a Cox, which is supposed to be red and yellow with plenty of russeting: these were smooth and dark green with a bit of red. Second, this (it was September 16) was at least three weeks before Coxes were ready to eat. Third, when asked about their buying policy, the supermarkets said their English apple season hadn’t yet begun, which was why they were still stocking apples from elsewhere.

Well, plainly the English apple season had begun: you had only to walk down the high street to find Worcester Pearmain, Greensleeves, Spartan, Lord Lambourne and (almost edible) Bramleys in the farmers’ market. But the Cox season hadn’t begun. If they were buying unripe Coxes from Holland, why not from Somerset? More to the point, why couldn’t they buy ripe Worcesters from down the road?

Neil Gibson is responsible for buying Sainsbury’s apples. I met him near Canterbury, in a packing shed belonging to England’s biggest apple grower.

What do you picture when you hear “English orchard”? Nothing, I suspect, like the thing I encountered at Mansfield Farms. The company has 3,000 acres of trees – almost one-sixth of the English eating apple orchards. So the first thing you see is a giant car park, with white minibuses dropping off pickers and packers. And behind it, three huge steel sheds.

The apples are dropped into water and floated on to a conveyor belt. It takes them through a giant hood like a Cat scanner, where they are photographed and compared, by computer, to the transcendental form being packed that day. When I visited, they were packing Royal Gala for Sainsbury’s, who wanted the apples to be 60% red and above a certain diameter, measured to the nearest millimetre. On other days they packed for Waitrose, Marks & Spencer or Somerfield; each demands different colour ratios and the machine is calibrated accordingly. The computer feeds instructions to a conveyor belt, made of hundreds of rotating brushes. Apples that fail the test are shunted into a different lane and drop down a shute. The others are rolled into trays, which move down the loading jetties. Here, workers dressed in Guantánamo orange make sure they’ve settled into the trays, then feed them through a machine that slaps on the little stickers. Supervisors in white coats dash from jetty to jetty.

Gibson, a pleasant young man, had been on the media training courses and said all the right things. Sainsbury’s, he said, is doing its best to help British apple growers and now sells 15 English varieties, more than any other supermarket. It had even introduced a couple of traditional breeds in its “season’s best” range, including the St Edmund’s Pippin.

“But surely a lot of those British apples are really New Zealand or Canadian varieties being grown here?”

“Well, supermarkets have to sell varieties consumers want to buy. Royal Gala is a key variety for them. It’s been successfully grown in the UK for five or 10 years, which means we can source the majority of our Royal Gala from the UK during the British season.”

So this is purely driven by the consumer? It’s not driven by the supermarkets’ need to stock an apple that doesn’t bruise easily, that stores easily, that can be grown in bulk to a standard shape and size?

“Not at all. To give an example, we’ve encouraged the growth of Braeburn in the UK and have been able to source 300 tonnes of them from Britain each year.”

Nevertheless, the claim that their decisions are governed entirely by consumer demand is simply wrong. The superstores have withdrawn one of the most popular modern varieties, the Katy, because it bruises easily, which means they lose too much stock as they truck it from John O’Groats to Land’s End via Spitsbergen and back. And whoever asked for a Bramley with the texture of depleted uranium?

Only 20% of the apples sold in the UK are grown here, and most of the surviving producers are trying to compete directly with foreign growers by cultivating the same varieties. It’s a mug’s game: over the past 10 years, China has planted more orchards than there are in western Europe, with the obvious result that the only viable future for the British apple grower is to produce fruit that isn’t being grown anywhere else. That is certainly what June and Robin Small, owners of Charlton Orchards in Somerset, have found.

Now, this is an English orchard of the kind you might have pictured. Round, green trees with round, red apples on a sunlit field giving on to the Blackdown Hills. In the branches, like giant birds, perch multicoloured hippies: the students who have come to pick the fruit. From the pages of the same unlikely storybook walk Robin and June – white hair, apple cheeks, strong hands, broad Zumerzett.

The Smalls have 40 acres of fruit. Until six years ago, they sold it to the superstores, but they found them harder and harder to deal with. “They wanted apples all of the same size, same colour, same shape,” said June. “And it meant ours were not acceptable. We do grow some odd-shaped ones in this country.”

“They were paying a reasonable price 15, 20 years ago,” said Robin. “But the price wasn’t rising and our costs were. They could source apples from anywhere in the world, at a price that suited them. In the UK, it’s harder to grow high-yielding crops. But because the apples grow more slowly, the flavour is much better.”

A few years ago, a French farmers’ market came to Taunton. The Smalls went, and saw that they had a way out. They got together with the local bakers, cheesemakers and vegetable growers, and started setting up markets of their own. Now they supply 20 every month. Through the markets and their farm shop, they shift 200 tonnes of apples a year. They introduce customers to unfamiliar varieties by giving them samples to taste, and they’ve discovered that the enthusiasm for diversity is almost limitless. They now grow 35 varieties of apple, mostly old ones, among them Ribston Pippin, Ashmead’s Kernel and Grenadier. The market is there – the growers just have to find a way of reaching it. The problem for anyone bigger than the Smalls is that the superstores stand between them and their customers.

But, of course, that’s not the only problem. The other one arrives on January 1, courtesy of the EU. The man who has been leading the fight against it is a cider grower in Somerset called Julian Temperley, whose Burrow Hill cider has sped the passage of, well, I forget how many pleasant evenings. He uses the old processes, grows the old fruit, and is largely responsible for the revival of the Kingston Black, an apple that inspires awe among those who know it.

The day did not begin well. I spotted him hobbling out of a barn, one foot in plaster, army surplus trousers, roughly shaven, hair like the aftermath of a hurricane.

“Are you Julian Temperley?”

“Yes. Who are you?” A posh voice, a bit offhand.

“George Monbiot. We spoke last week.”

“Monbiot ! Were you the fucking dipstick on the radio this morning?”

“Er, I was on the radio.”

“Right, well you can fuck off.”

“But … ”

“It’s basic tolerance, isn’t it? You wouldn’t ban halal meat, would you, but it’s all right to ban hunting, because the Norman aristocrats did it. What fucking nonsense. No, just fuck off.”

“That’s not quite … ”

“Show me your hands. You see! Never done a day’s work in your life.”

“Well, you talk about tolerance … ”

“No. Fuck off.”

I was about to fuck off, but I had a camera crew with me, and the producer took Temperley’s elbow and walked him off across the farmyard. I’m not sure what she said, but when I caught up with them, he turned and said, “Right, where do you want to do this?”

As soon as he got on to apples, he appeared to forget he was talking to the urban jackboot. He took us round the orchards and his barns, and gave us lunch, with a very good bottle of Kingston Black champagne.

“It’ll be a disaster,” he said of the new EU legislation. “The financial incentive to cut down these trees is going to be huge. You can’t blame the farmers – they’ve got a living to make. If the land is excluded, its capital value will go down. It’s a complete cock-up.”

There is some confusion about what, exactly, will qualify for subsidies under the Single Payment Scheme. No one disputes that commercial orchards won’t qualify, or that this is a discouragement to stay in business. As the British government admits, “Commercial apple growers who have found it difficult to secure contracts may feel they have little alternative but to grub up and claim the Single Payment.”

Some plots, perhaps those with fewer than 50 trees a hectare or where farmers have already been receiving subsidies for the animals grazing under their trees, should qualify for the new payment. By the time this article is published, it should be clear which land is in and which is out. Either way, we’re certain to lose even more orchards.

Julian won’t be grubbing up his trees: he makes his own cider, so he doesn’t rely on anyone else buying his apples. But for some of his neighbours, whose market is less secure, it’ll be the final blow of the axe. Julian took us to meet Andrew Foote, whose 10 acres of apples were planted by his grandfather. It’s an orchard of precisely the kind the government agency English Nature says should be preserved: old trees wreathed in mistletoe, with holes in which woodpeckers and little owls might nest, growing ancient varieties such as Red Worthy and Porter’s Perfection. It looked magnificent, the great gnarly trees billowing with red and yellow fruit. But Andrew said he’d grub them out before the New Year, “unless things change drastically. I feel very sad about it. Some varieties you probably won’t ever see again. You like to try to keep things going, but those that have the power decide. You’re going to see fires round here as big as the foot and mouth fires. Only it’ll be just trees. There’s always been apples here, and I’d like to see my young boy carry on with it. But that future’s gone.”

The old varieties won’t disappear altogether. They’ll be kept alive by a few enthusiasts, found in some farmers’ markets or the odd specialist line in the superstores. The charity Common Ground and a few enlightened county councils have been helping to plant community orchards and run Apple Days. But, as Robin Small told me, “The very large growers will survive, and a few of the smaller ones, if they do what we’ve done and go to the public direct. Everyone in between will have a very, very hard time.”

When I came back from Somerset, I applied to the local allotment association for an orchard plot. I’ve just received the keys, and there’s room for at least 20 trees. I’ll ask Nick to help me choose what to plant, but I know that among them will be the Ribston Pippin, the Reverend W Wilkes, the Belle de Boskoop and the Pitmaston Pineapple. I will build an apple store and do what it says in Hogg and Bull’s. And I’ll never buy a Braeburn or a Granny Smith again

· George Monbiot’s film on the decline of the English apple will be on Newsnight on BBC2 at 10.30pm on November 8.