Apples: Keep the doctor away

Go inTO a local supermarket and – depending on where you shop – you may be hard-pressed to find local apples, writes Emma Crowhurst.

We also seem to be offered the same varieties on some supermarket shelves – despite the fact there are more than 2,000 types of apple in Britain. You could, in fact, eat a different kind every day for six years – and still find more.

Just two varieties – Gala (28%) and Braeburn (19%) – now account for almost half of all sales across UK outlets.

The market remains dominated by cheap imports and focused on a few easy-to-grow varieties with long shelf-lives that travel well – depriving consumers of valuable choice.

Other fantastic varieties never see the light of day. Supermarkets are rather fussy about the look of their fruit. They have strict specifications on size, colour and surface characteristics, with any deviations leading to rejections. They say this is what the customer expects, but is this really the case?

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One supermarket that does stock locally-grown apples is The East of England Co-operative Society. Its ‘Sourced Locally’ initiative is putting more local products on its shelves than ever before and it is working with East Anglia’s finest producers to source quality products from across the region.

One such producer is Moat Farm at Kenton, near Debenham, bought in 2005 by Henry Dobell, who had previously spent 15 years growing sisal and coffee in east Africa.

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“The last seven years have been a steep learning curve,” he says. “For the first three years I grew for the major multiples but became increasingly frustrated by their antics and the loss of control over my crop. Once 80% of our costs were out of my control and I discovered some of my fruit was being marketed as ‘Kent Local’ because it was packed in Kent, I decided a different approach was needed.”

Henry feels that rather than concentrating on shelf-life and cosmetic appearance, taste must be the starting point.

“By leaving our apples to mature on the tree longer they develop the fantastic flavours of traditional English apples,” he says. “This may shorten the marketing period but I would rather eat delicious fruit for a shorter period than a seemingly never-ending supply of blandness. Nearly half the farm has been replanted in the past five years and the main crop is still Cox’s, Russet and Gala. I have added heritage varieties known to grow well here, such as Charles Ross, Lord Lambourne, Melrose, James Grieve and D’arcy spice, which seem to have been abandoned by commercial growers.”

He severed all his ties with the major supermarkets and now stores, packs, markets and delivers his apples directly to customers and works closely with the East of England Co-op, whose approach he has found refreshingly different to other supermarket chains. Moat Farm apples are the “Sourced Locally” fruit found in 25 East of England Co-operative stores in Suffolk. They also supply many farm shops and good-quality independent greengrocers in the county.

It is good to hear of growers taking back control and also receiving respect and fair treatment from a supermarket.

People have come to enjoy the same apples all year long instead of enjoying each fruit as it comes into season. Of course some apples work better that others for certain recipes. The Bramley apple is often perfect for flavour, nicely acidic and citrus in flavour. But it does break down and, although perfect for apple sauce, its lack of texture when cooked means presentation will be lost on open apple tarts like a tart tatin. This is where a combination of apple types will benefit the chef. I use dessert apples on the base and the Bramley apple on the top. When my tart is turned out, the dessert apples are there neat and nicely shaped beneath. The Bramley flavour is sublime with the caramel.

For my apple souffl� I actually use a dessert apple to cook and serve the souffl� instead of a ramekin. The souffl� mix is made with Henry’s delicious apple juice. When the souffl� cooks, the apple is just tender, so it supports the souffl� but is soft enough to eat.

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