Orchards are swelling with ripe, fragrant fruit. It’s time to celebrate English apple season and rediscover some traditional varieties.
Paul Ward grows apples, pears and plums for us on his four farms in Kent. He started out over 17 years ago, buying his first orchard as a hobby. Since then, Paul’s business has grown to producing 700-800 tonnes of apples every year. About half of these go to us, to supply our regional farms.
Organic apple growing is not without its difficulties. Our damp, mild, British climate makes trees susceptible to fungal diseases that sap vigour and yield. Organic farming forbids the use of some sprays to prevent this, presenting a very real challenge to growers. This is why so few orchards remain in the UK; despite people’s professed enthusiasm for traditional varieties, the reality is that our eyes prefer the cosmetically-perfect specimens in the fruitbowl. The apples you’ll get from us might have the odd knot or gnarl, but they are grown for flavour and character.
We start the season with Discovery, a red-skinned fruit with crisp white flesh. Katy will be ready soon after; a beautiful dark crimson apple that has a light, gentle flavour typical of early varieties. Then come Red Windsor and Red Pippin with a stronger, Cox-like flavour. Look out also for Russets, with a distinctive dry flesh and balance of sweet and sharpness. Mid-season, try Spartan, a dark red-skinned, aromatic variety. We will also have some Bramleys through the season; the definitive English apple for cooking and baking.
Some of the early season varieties, particularly Discovery, are at their best for only about a week. As with all fruit, smell is a good indicator of flavour and ripeness. For the main varieties, ripening is about the conversion of starch to sugar; they get sweeter up to a point, then the texture dives and they lose moisture, becoming soft and woolly. As a rule, all English apples are best eaten as quickly as possible, freshly-plucked from the tree.
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Over the last twenty years the huge majority of the UK strawberry crop has moved from open fields to the protection and intensification afforded by hundreds of acres of polytunnels, largely in Kent and Herefordshire. Plastic can advance a crop by perhaps two weeks, but the great advantage is the protection it gives from the vagaries of a British summer. Fruit must be picked dry to avoid bruising and to give a reasonable shelf life. Even more importantly, persistent dampness leads to a build-up of fungal disease, particularly botrytis, which can reduce a good berry to a foul tasting pulp in a matter of hours.
Our strawberries are grown extensively on high ridges at wide spacing which, in a normal year, gives enough airflow to dry dews and rain before botrytis sets in. There can be no doubt that polytunnels are a blot on the landscape; the question is whether they are justified by the economic and environmental benefit they bring by reducing wastage, extending the UK season, excluding exports and thus reducing food miles. For twenty years I have stubbornly persisted with growing outdoors, with the result that we have a relatively short season and, over the last few years, have not been able to pick up to a third of the fruit. Initially I was convinced that growing outdoors gave better flavour, but now I am not so sure and wonder if I have been overly dogmatic in my resistance. Across the five regional farms we would need eight acres of tunnels to provide a good supply of strawberries for the 45,000 homes we deliver to each week. Your views would be welcome.
We have been planting on our farm south of the Loire in the northern Vendée for a month now. It is just 250 road miles and a ferry crossing back to Riverford but the light levels are much better and the crops should be ready about five weeks sooner, allowing us to plug the “hungry gap” in April and May. The locals have made a few jokes about reclaiming King Richard’s kingdom (he lived down the road for a bit) but, with the help of our French partner, Didier, most have been remarkably supportive of our latter day conquest. The coldest winter for 25 years combined with heavy rain bogged us down, and legendary bureaucracy sapped morale but, after three years of planning, 200,000 early lettuces and spinach are taking root ready to fill next month’s boxes. The gales that battered France last week shredded some of our mini tunnels, but we escaped lightly compared with the coast 15 miles away, where 50 people died when sea defences failed. The farm is fairly flat but well above sea level and has small fields with plenty of trees in the hedges to moderate the wind.
Years of growing vegetables for supermarkets in the UK taught me that the free market can be a harsh place for small producers. Distant producers are even more vulnerable. So is Fairtrade certification the answer? Can ethics be measured, certified and delivered via a free market to customers 3000 miles away who want to use their buying power to make the world a better place?
These are the questions I found myself asking last December in a small field of organic pineapples 100 miles north of Lome in Togo, West Africa. The first of the fruit was ready for harvest, the culmination of fifteen months of planting and weeding with only a mattock to help, and of ten years of planning, agronomy and organisation by the French company Pronatura. The field, one of the largest in this village, is the size of half a football pitch and the orderly rows are interspersed with termite mounds, papaya trees, palms, bananas and towering kapoc trees. The scene is well managed, harmonious and productive; organic farming at its best and in stark contrast to the intensive, large scale, foreign owned monocultures that are typical of export-oriented production in Africa. The goal has been reached: an organic, fair trade pineapple from small producers which can reliably meet the demands of an English supermarket buyer.
How 16p turns into £2.50