In the pink

Food - Bee Wilson is unimpressed by an apple with movie-star pretensions

Even apples need glamour to sell them. Pink Ladies haven't been around for many years, but once you've noticed them, they stick in your mind. Their vulgar pink promotes itself against all the green-yellow-and-red apples, as Granny Smiths used to stand out on account of their uniform green and Red Delicious for their shiny red. But pink is different. You see the name "Pink Lady" and the cute candy-pink heart on the label and you think of Olivia Newton-John sipping sodas in an open-top car. A sleight of eye makes you see these pink globes as sugared treats more than fruit. And then there's the price: twice as much as many supermarket apples. You begin to wonder if they're twice as delicious. Before you know it, you've bought one . . .

When you bite into a Pink Lady, it goes snap!, as if you were eating it in a commercial. Just the feeling in your hand is harder and crisper than with a Braeburn or a Cox. The Lady is symmetrical and smooth, with not a trace of russet. Its flesh is white and fine-grained, like a movie star's. Strangely, the cut flesh stays white long after other apples turn brown and unattractive. Its core, like its skin, is picture perfect. The Pink Lady is a movie star who doesn't age. Her label carries the tautological legend "uniquely distinctive", yet the flavour is somehow what counts least. It is very sweet, quite tart, not as boring as a Delicious, but never as exciting as an Egremont Russet or a blossomy Cox. Above all, it is consistent in a way that cannot be faulted.

According to the apple expert Frank Browning, the Pink Lady, first bred in Australia in 1973, is "the prime example of the new global apple". It meets all the criteria of the current trade: to look pretty and "unusual", to stay crisp in a long winter storage and therefore be available year-round, to sit on the shelf at room temperature for a full week without deteriorating and to have a sugar content high enough to flatter babyish consumers. Such apples are expensive to produce, but this does not deter entrepreneurs, because the profits are high, too. The Pink Lady is being planted feverishly in New Zealand and Australia, California and Washington.

Simple-minded growers of the old global apple, the Washington Red Delicious, signed their own death warrants by breeding fruits exclusively for their looks, redder and redder and redder, not noticing that the flesh inside had turned into cotton wool. As the pomologist Bob Norton commented recently, the Red Delicious is now "better for table decorations than it is for eating". But the Pink Lady, a cross between a Golden Delicious and a Lady Williams, is different. After you've admired its blushing skin, you can actually eat it. Two consumer experiences for the price of one.

The Pink Lady reminds me of nothing so much as Starbucks, which is, after all, the leviathan of the new global trade. At first you think: 61p for a single apple? £1.75 for the smallest latte? You businessmen must be stupid; you'll price yourselves out of the market - and besides, this apple/latte isn't that good. But then it turns out that they have actually priced themselves into a new market of global comfort and reliability and, somehow, you find yourself buying more lattes and more silly pink apples and you are the one left feeling stupid and poor, which is how they intended it to be all along.

The utopian socialist Charles Fourier (1772-1837) saw the price of apples as an example of the discrepancies in capitalist or "civilised" society. One day he ordered an apple in a Paris restaurant and was shocked when it cost him 40 sous. For the same price in the French provinces, he could have purchased a whole barrel of the same kind of fruit; yet these cheap country apples lay there, unsold and rotting. For Fourier, nothing better symbolised the grotesquerie of modern civilisation. But then, he didn't live to see the Pink Lady.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose