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

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever

Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.