Confession: I am a cider drinker. (Also wine and whatever my tipple of the moment might be – currently brandy with lime juice and ginger beer.) As someone who enjoys a pint of the fruity liquid gold, or a bottle of the fizzy flavoured stuff (Rekorderlig strawberry and lime, I’m looking at you) I was delighted to see that the National Trust has been gifted the National Cider Apple Collection. This includes almost 300 varieties of apple, which are being propagated and transplanted to orchards at National Trust properties in Somerset, Devon, and Herefordshire.
I first got a glimpse of the extraordinary number of apple varieties grown in this country when manning a stall at the Luton Hoo Pumpkin and Apple Festival a few years ago. We shared a shed with an apple association and it’s collection of dozens of different apples. These were spread out on a table to provide an apple identification service. We had the best smelling stall in the place. The 300 varieties just acquired by the National Trust is small beer (yes, wrong analogy!) in comparison to the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent which boasts 2,200 varieties of apple. Here in Bedfordshire the centre of apple growing was Laxton’s nursery at Bedford, which was responsible for many of the 29 native Bedfordshire varieties. The oldest of these, dating back over 200 years, is the Bedfordshire foundling, described as a “large flat-round yellow apple sometimes with a dull orange flush” with “coarse, firm acidic flesh.”
Although the Romans cultivated apple orchards in Britain, cider arrived in this country with the Normans. Even today it is impossible to avoid apples on any visit to Normandy – apple jam for breakfast, tarte aux pommes, Calvados (apple liqueur) and, of course, cider. In the Middle Ages Kent was a centre of cider production, but by the end of the 18th centre the counties now better known for cider – Somerset, Devon, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire – became the base for the industry following a campaign to improve methods of cider making. Quality at this time was extremely variable. Writing in 1796 the author of The Rural Economy of Gloucestershire complained “”A palate accustomed to sweet cider would judge the rough cider of the farm houses to be a mixture of vinegar and water, with a portion of dissolved alum to give it a roughness.” A potted history of apples and cider in the UK can be found here. Although the number of cider orchards in England is very much less than in their Victorian heyday they are on the rise, with 8000 acres of orchards planted in the last decade as the popularity of cider has grown.
If your appetite is whetted for the smell of apple blossom this list from the Daily Telegraph suggests ten orchards around the country to visit. I will be in Cumbria in May and hope to fit in a visit to Brantwood, and Hughenden is on my list of National Trust houses to explore. I will definitely be taking a stroll around the apple trees.
Aside: I notice that among the species found in orchards is the rare corky fruited water dropwort. This may be the most quirky plant name ever. It also caused havoc for the anti-terrorist squad preparing for the 2012 Olympic Games in London by inconsiderately growing where they wanted to plant surface to air missiles.