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12 October 2016

A bite of the apple: meet the man obsessed with our most English fruit

Pete Brown is an apple obsessive who is allergic to apples. Caroline Crampton went to an orchard with him to find out why he still loves this fruit so much.

By Caroline Crampton

An orchard on an autumn morning has a distinctive smell. It’s a fragrance that seems to become still more powerful as you breathe it in: a blend of rich, almost rotting fruit and a vinegary sharpness reminiscent of the driest cider. As I walk down avenues of trees laden with apples, the source of this scent squidges into the grass underfoot. The first fruit has fallen before the pickers could get to it.

It was on such a morning that Pete Brown, who is guiding me today around the vast orchard at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley, in Surrey, found out that he was allergic to apples. Early in his research, the author of The Apple Orchard bit into a Kingston Black and felt like he had been “licking a battery”. His throat swelled up and he struggled to breathe.

Discovering that for him, as for the erstwhile inhabitants of the Garden of Eden, the apple was a “forbidden fruit” only intensified his obsession with its history and the culture around it. “There’s nothing else that we venerate in the same way,” he says, bending down to read one of the markers in the soil in front of each tree.

Brown, who in his dark T-shirt and suit jacket looks as if he should be propping up the bar at a folk concert, can date his fascination with apples to September 2013, when he was working on a coffee-table book about cider. “All the good bits from the cider book were about apples . . . but there was no room for them,” he recalls. “Books rarely come that simply and fully formed, but this one totally did.”

Every apple cultivar has a name, from the familiar Golden Delicious to medieval-sounding monikers such as Peasgood’s Nonsuch and St Edmund’s Pippin. Brown watches eagerly as I bite into a russet from a tree blandly labelled “Unknown”. I try to describe the flavour of the juicy explosion in my mouth and he says, “That’s another bastard, I’m sure it is,” meaning that it’s an uncatalogued hybrid variety.

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Orchards don’t occur naturally. These serried rows of trees represent nature enhanced. Brown likens standing among them to being in a cathedral. “I have this physical response, now, to being in an orchard. My breathing slows and my blood pressure drops.” We fall silent and listen to the hush in these “beautiful aisles”. Distant road noise and the occasional thud of fruit falling to earth are all that interrupt the rustle of the breeze through apple leaves.

There are more than 600 cultivars grown at Wisley, which used to be the UK’s official National Fruit Collection (this has been sited since 1952 at Brogdale, Kent, where there are roughly 2,400 varieties). The contrasts between the ripening red apples, the blue sky and the green grass here could be straight off a postcard of ye olde England – indeed, Brown’s book is subtitled The Story of Our Most English Fruit.

Yet the apple originated in Kazakhstan. DNA evidence has traced it to the forests of the Tian Shan mountains on the Chinese border, and Brown says it is likely that the fruit spread both east and west from there by the Silk Road. Apple cultivation in Britain is thought to have been going for at least a couple of millennia. “When the Romans got here, they found pagans worshipping apple deities,” he says. “Sometimes, mythology is a better guide than the surviving records.”

Despite this long history of native species, many of the varieties stocked by UK supermarkets are foreign. “It’s quite sad that we have to rely on New Zealand varieties, but it’s realistic,” Brown says. Our eyes have got used to the uniform perfection of foreign apples, he tells me, and many of the traditional English fruit can’t provide such consistency. “You can complain about that, but we’re all complicit in it.”

Britain’s apple farmers have adapted to meet the demand, and the orchards of Kent are crowded with Braeburn, Royal Gala and Jazz apple trees. Older varieties such as the Devonshire Quarrenden or the Court Pendu Plat just can’t compete for hardiness or disease resistance.

Despite the “merrie England” associations of the apple – Brown writes in his book about pagan ceremonies in orchards and morris dancers on hilltops at dawn – the modern-day UK is surprisingly lax about our signature fruit. The National Fruit Collection struggles for funding, and Brown says many who work there “are doing it because they are passionate about it”.

Apple cultivation in the UK has long been the preserve of the eager amateur, such as the 19th-century nurseryman Robert Hogg, who was among the first to catalogue all of the English varieties. “Britain doesn’t even have a full-time pomologist,” Brown says. “It’s crazy.”

In recent years, it has become clear that mapping the range of apple cultivar genomes will be essential to achieving global food security. In the United States, botanists are growing native Kazakh varieties and researching their disease resistance. But Brown says that when he asked the Brogdale researchers if they had been to Kazakhstan, they said they couldn’t afford the plane fare.

In the next row of trees, Royal Horticultural Society volunteers are starting to pick the apples. Ladders are set up, and wooden crates labelled for each variety stand ready to receive the fruit. Brown sighs. “This time last year, I was up on one of those ladders with a little basket,” he says.

There is something magical about the apple that makes us venerate it above other fruit, Brown suggests, as we leave the orchard. Just like Adam and Eve, we are tempted by it. The tree needs us to spread the seed widely, so it has made its fruit irresistible to human beings – a triumph of evolution. “The apple does this because it wants to be eaten. It wants to be loved.”

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph