Strange fruit

English apples are ripe for a return, but Nicholas Clee wonders if British shops will bite

The apple season is late - to put the matter optimistically - at our local Tesco Express. The Braeburns are from South Africa, the Royal Galas are from Germany, and the "fun-size" Galas are from France. Perhaps the Cox's Orange Pippins will arrive soon. I'm not optimistic about seeing Russets on the shelves, still less about coming across any of the evocatively named varieties listed in the brand-new edition of The Apple Source Book, from the environmental charity Common Ground. Devonshire Quarrenden, Ashmead's Kernel, Peasgood's Nonsuch: these are not the sorts that you find at Tesco Express.

Importation has been eroding Britain's apple industry for 50 years. About two-thirds of the apples we eat come from overseas, so it's not surprising that two-thirds of the apple orchards that adorned Britain after the Second World War have disappeared.

There are opposing, albeit less muscular, trends. An influential minority of consumers is supporting the rise of farmers' markets, and encouraging some farmers to specialise in supplying markets and shops with interesting apples. Common Ground has promoted the development of community orchards, owned and run by local people. The Apple Source Book lists many varieties that have survived the onslaught of Braeburn, Gala and Pink Lady.

I have friends who grow apples along with pears and some soft fruit. I ask them what proportion of their sales is through the supermarkets. "One hundred per cent," they tell me. "And the same would be true for about 85 per cent of growers." That cannot be an entirely comfortable level of exposure to powerful customers; but the supermarkets, responding to the environmental concerns of their own customers, are now demanding English apples. Sainsbury's took the lead a few years ago, and Tesco, despite my observations above, is adopting the same policy. "Asda and Morrisons have come in strongly, too," my farming friends say.

The supermarkets' policy will not support a more widespread replanting of characterful apples, however. My friends grow Coxes, Braeburns, Galas and some Russets; they may try out "club" varieties such as Cameo and Jazz. But their experiments with traditional, more idiosyncratic varieties have not worked, because the supermarkets' enthusiasm for these apples has been ephemeral.

The supermarkets' argument - that all they do is give people what they want - is simplistic. But the argument that the supermarkets are responsible for a debasement of food culture is simplistic, too. My daughters ignore the traditional English apples in the fruit bowl, demanding Granny Smiths and Pink Ladies. A lot of other people have similar tastes. I cannot condemn my friends or their giant customers for acting accordingly.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com