We talked about apples. It seemed that her father had been a great apple man. In Hampshire, they’d had a fair-sized orchard planted with a wide variety and he’d brought her up to discriminate between them. “Before he pit into one, he’d sniff it, roll it around his cupped palms, then smell his hands. Then he’d tap it and finger it like a blind man. Sometimes he made me close my eyes and, when I’d had a bite, ask me to say which apple.”
J.L. Carr would have been aware of the invasion of foreign apples, which was beginning about the time he wrote A Month in the Country. The familiar English varieties that were seasonal were steadily giving way to year-round commercial brands. Alice Keach’s speech is an ode to the traditional English apple, a cause no doubt dear to the author who has been called “the last Englishman.”
Tom Birkin mentions an “obvious” British apple, Cox’s Orange. This particular orange reigned as the premier dessert apple of England for almost two centuries, from the time when Richard Cox, a retired brewer who moved to the Berkshire countryside, pollinated two seeds from a Ribston Pippin and a Blenheim Orange apple.
Alice Keach was right when she said the Orange Cox was an easy apple to distinguish – even a blind man with a bad cold could do it, for the apple’s seeds are loose and and rattle within the core when you shake the apple. One enthusiast described it as ““a variety for the connoisseur, who can delight in the appreciation of the remarkable range of subtle flavors — pear, melon, freshly-squeezed Florida orange juice, and mango are all evident in a good example.” These apples are described like fine wines.
One English journalist, discussing the Cox Orange, decried the invasion of foreign apples this way:
But now, 184 years later, the empress of all apples is under threat of being ousted from her throne by vulgar – and literally more tasteless – rivals such as Gala, Jazz and Braeburn. Year-round sales of Gala have – I can hardly bring myself to write this – already overtaken the Cox, and UK production is following the same sorry trend.
One reason – wouldn’t you know, in our instant, takeaway society – is that these impostors look better, rather as Paris Hilton looks better than, say, Grace Kelly. The true Cox can be unevenly sized and slightly dusty-looking. Apparently, with apples, as with life, appearance is now all.
Apple-eaters are being seduced by the shiny red skins of foreign rivals. Not long ago I was appalled by the sight of those even more vulgar arrivistes, Pink Ladies, being sold in our local supermarket in a free fluorescent Barbie-pink plastic holdall.
The late-season D’Arcy Spice, the other “obvious” apple mentioned by Tom Birkin, was discovered in a garden at Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Essex, in 1785. It’s another old apple with a plain apearance: yellowish-green skin, flushed with russet patches. It becomes sweeter and more complex in storage.
The Cox’s celebrated status has protected it from extinction, though not decline, and D’Arcy Spice has favored status as well. Others may not have had the same protection. Alice Keach also mentions Cosette Reine and Coseman Reinette. These apples seem to have pretty much disappeared entirely, though they may be related to the “Reine de Reinette.” According to a slow-food website (here): “Probably originated in Holland around the 1770’s, Reine de Reinettes were in production in France, England and Germany during the 1700’s and 1800’s. During the 1700-1800’s it was a favorite among the elite, today this apple is very elusive and has been almost lost in the modern era, perhaps due to its modest physical appearance.” It, too, is an endangered species.
America to the rescue: the Reine de Reinette was discovered in an old orchard at Acorn Ranch near Yorkville, California. This 1800’s historic orchard from Gold Rush days, abandoned for over 50 years, was renovated in the 2010’s and put into organic production. It produced about 1,000 pounds of the apples in 2013.