Core values

Britain is rich in apples, but we eat only the boring ones.

In theory, the new apple season should present the conscientiously egalitarian shopper with the ideal opportunity to show their disdain for conventional hierarchies. Going for Granny Smith over Grand Duke Constantine, or choosing the common Cox's Orange Pippin rather than the Countess of Wessex would be a blessedly pleasurable way to voice one's support for a classless society.

Sadly, however, most of us never get the chance; although there are thought to be more than 7,500 varieties of apple in cultivation around the world, you will be hard-pressed to find more than five to choose from, even in the largest of supermarkets.

In fact, wherever you shop, the same old names crop up over and over again: Braeburn, Gala, Golden Delicious (if ever an apple could be sued under the Trade Descriptions Act . . .). If you don't like big and bland, or at least, boring, then you're in trouble. The irony is that no other fruit boasts such glorious diversity: as The Oxford Companion to Food puts it, apple seeds grow into trees resembling their parents "no more than human daughters resemble their mothers", so, without techniques such as grafting, every tree would constitute its own variety. It is this vaguely miraculous process that created the names we know and love today - but also many more that most of us will never be lucky enough to taste.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs's National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent boasts over 2,000 varieties of native apple, many of which, once local delicacies, are now found nowhere else. The unattractively named, but apparently delicious Irish Greasy Pippin (the waxy coating offering protection from vicious Atlantic winds) and the downright ugly Cat's Head cooking apple are two such casualties of the postwar march of the supermarkets. Not only do many traditional varieties lack the yields and robustness required to endure a centralised distribution system, but can you really see Tesco building an ad campaign around the Brown Snout or even the thrilling-sounding Climax?

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, Britain has lost more than half of its apple orchards over the past 25 years, grubbed up for the most part because they were not commercially viable in a world where an apple is prized for its good looks rather than its performance in a pie. The problem is, apart from this sad lack of variety, many of these shiny models of pippy perfection are not ideally suited to the British climate or soil: Granny Smith, for instance, first appeared in New South Wales. Although growers have had success with some foreign varieties, the Kiwi Braeburn being a notable example, it is a shame that there is little incentive for them to devote equal time to native species.

After all, the British taste in fruit is as distinct and eccentric as our weather. We are the only people to cultivate apples specifically for cooking, or to look past the toad-like skin of the russet family to the aromatic flesh beneath. (Our curious passion for such unprepossessing fruit is often attributed to the Victorian custom of serving apples with port - the nutty character of russet apples combines exceptionally well with tawnies.)

There might be light at the end of the tunnel, however: the supermarkets have picked up on our rumblings of discontent. Marks & Spencer, once notorious for its shiny, air-freighted produce, has been working with Brogdale to bring a few less familiar names to shelves this autumn, and Sainsbury's tells me that it will be stocking more than 60 varieties of British-grown apples over the course of the season. Granted, these won't be the ugly ducklings - it might be a while before we see the Bloody Ploughman on shelves next to the Braeburns - but it's a start. And every revolution has to begin with the smallest of seeds . . .

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?