|Bumper crop: a mixed basket of apples from the Aspall estate in Suffolk. The family has been growing cider apples for eight generations|
We have the best climate in the world for apples, so why do we grow so few varieties? A leading orchard owner recommends 10 to try at home
By Sarah Raven
This year looks like being a vintage apple crop. The spring rain was good for blossom and we've had plenty of sunshine since – but not baking drought – which is just what makes an apple particularly tasty. There's plenty of sugar in the fruit, along with quite high levels of acidity, the perfect balance for flavour.
The apple-growing community is loving 2013, and are on a campaign for us all to plant more trees. We should be adding them to our gardens and underused public spaces. In apple-growing counties such as Suffolk, Herefordshire and Kent community orchards are already being encouraged.
Henry Chevallier Guild, eighth generation of the apple-growing Aspall cider family, is a leading advocate. As he says, Britain has one of the best climates in the world for apples. In the 19th century we used to make the most of that, with 2,500 different varieties listed in the UK, but that's now declined to only 12 that you'll commonly see. It's even quite rare to see a whole orchard of Cox varieties.
The most widely grown apples are now modern hybrids such as 'Gala', 'Braeburn', 'Jazz' and the similar 'Kanzi', along with 'Idared' and 'Falstaff'. These are OK and travel well, but they're not the best for flavour, whether eaten or made into juice or cider. For that, you need Coxes, Spartans and Russets: traditional varieties that have done well here for decades but which are on the wane.
Aspall's estate in Suffolk is entirely organic and, as Henry says, if you choose the right forms, growing apples in your back garden without chemicals is easy. I'm tired of my home-grown apples being riddled with scab, so I am keen to find tasty, disease-resistant forms which will give me a decent harvest. That's the primary requirement of Henry's top 10 apples listed overleaf, but they'll all be helped – as Henry says – if they're planted with a walnut or garlic nearby.
How this companion planting works is not well understood, but it is regarded as an effective way to help prevent scab. There is some symbiotic relationship between the scab spores and walnuts or garlic which means the apple tree stays scab-free. In the apple forests of Kazakhstan (from where all apples trace their genealogy), there is plenty of scab spore about but none of the trees have it. At ground level there are many bulbs, and it is widely believed that they perform the same job.
Henry gives me his list of top varieties but, when pushed to name his desert island apple, he decides on 'Howgate Wonder', a brilliant all-rounder, supremely tasty and easy to use in so many different ways.
HENRY'S TOP TEN APPLES
1. 'Chivers Delight'
This is a late flowerer and cropper referred to in the trade as a 'Cox Plus'. It has as much flavour (if not more) than 'Cox's Orange Pippin' and better acidity, which it keeps in storage. Cox famously go woolly quickly in storage, whereas the flesh of 'Chivers Delight' remains firm and nutty. This fell out of commercial favour because of its colour irregularity. If the sun is on it, the fruit goes red, but it will not colour up on the shady side. This does not affect the flavour but makes them difficult to sell.
Nothing has the same richness of colour as 'Spartan', a lovely deep plum red, with almost bright white, contrasting flesh. It's a beautiful apple, which stays late on the tree and makes a fabulous eater with very juicy fruit. It's the one I use at Perch Hill for Christmas wreaths and, being a good storer, is widely available late in the year.
3. 'Blenheim Orange'
A fabulously aromatic, peppery, almost spicy apple with a softer nuttiness than you get with the similar-flavoured 'Egremont Russet'. This variety is a bit prone to scab, so is best grown on its own and certainly away from very scab-prone varieties such as 'Crispin'.
4. 'Egremont Russet'
A famous apple with a wonderful nutty, woody texture and a very characteristic taste, floral and heady, so you can almost smell the blossom. It stores well, with the flavour deepening to honey.
5. 'Pitmaston Pineapple'
This is a very unusual apple, difficult to find but, in Henry's view, worth the effort. It eats like a 'Greensleeves' early on, but you can store it until April when the flavour morphs into pineapple.
A light, crispy, full-of-flavour apple, lovely and crunchy straight off the tree. This is the one 'Golden Delicious' aspires to be, with excellent flavour in a beautiful pale yellow fruit.
This is one of the first to harvest (in August), so Henry loves it for reminding us what we've been missing all summer. If we get a sunny July and August, the redness leaches from the skin into the flesh. Then if you press it, you'll have a beautiful pale pink juice.
8. 'Worcester Pearmain'
A rich, creamy apple with a really strong flavour, one of the original varieties brought over by the Normans. It's just about surviving in the UK, but you don't see it often, apart from in the Wye Valley where it's usually pressed into juice.
9. 'Howgate Wonder'
A great all-rounder apple – a good cooker early on, it also presses well and mellows the later you leave it, with the acidity dropping away, so it can be eaten as a dessert apple from the store or tree. It's one of the few varieties where you can leave the fruit on the tree, start harvesting in August and carry on until the end of October at least. It performs well whatever the weather and is often a challenger for the largest fruit.
10. 'Médaille d'Or'
Henry's final recommendation is this wonderful bittersweet cider apple, still abundantly on the tree, until the end of November. The tree's appearance is unique – "there's a Grand Dame feeling about them, which reminds me of my grandmother," he says, "knotted and gnarled in the winter and very late to blossom in the spring. You think they're dead and then out the flowers come towards the end of May". The fruit is small and very acid, essential tannin for flavouring cider.
This is one of the great cider apples and one that – if you have the room for two trees and fancy a bit of cider-making – would be good to grow. Mix 50/50 with an acid apple such as 'Howgate Wonder' and you're away. Then you have the tannin from 'Médaille d'Or' and acidity from 'Howgate Wonder' and both have good sugar levels.
They are pruned to weep in the Aspall orchards, with graceful branches arching down almost to ground level. You can get right in underneath and be enclosed in an apple den.