In praise of apples

21 October has become celebrated as Apple Day. Launched in 1990 by Common Ground in Covent Garden, the aspiration for this was to celebrate and demonstrate the variety that is in danger of being lost, not simply in apples, but in the richness and diversity of landscape and ecology.

Golden Pippin and Scarlet Nonpareil from Rare Books Perkins SB 356 Charles McIntosh The orchard (London, 1839)

Golden Pippin and Scarlet Nonpareil from Rare Books Perkins SB 356 Charles McIntosh The orchard (London, 1839)

Apples have been cultivated for centuries: Pliny records details of sweet and culinary apples grown by the Romans in Italy. Whilst there is evidence that apples were grown in Great Britain in the Neolithic period, it was the Romans who introduced new sweeter tasting apples. After the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain, many orchards were abandoned as the countryside was beset by raiders. It was only in the wake of the Norman Conquest that apple growing was revitalised and new varieties of apples were introduced from France. During the thirteenth century, several kinds of apples became established in Britain, often grown in orchards attached to monasteries. In the sixteenth century Richard Harris, the chief fruitier to Henry VIII, introduced a number of new grafted varieties, including the famous Pippins and developed modern-style orchards in Kent. Herefordshire orchards were augmented by the best cider apples from France by Lord Scudamore, British ambassador to France during the reign of Charles II. The more scientific cultivation of apples, however, did not occur until the late eighteenth century. Seen as the most valuable and generally cultivated of European fruits, the apple was considered by Dr Thomas Andrew Knight “not the nature produce of any soil or climate, but owes its existence to human art”. The work on pollination undertaken by Knight, who was President of the Horticultural Society of London, led to improved varieties. It was to influence the work of others gardeners throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Until the eighteenth century fruit plants had been an essential part of the landscape in gardens on large estates. However with the swing from Renaissance formality to a more “natural” look, the cultivation of fruit and vegetables was moved to the, usually, walled kitchen garden. Owners were proud of their kitchen gardens both for their layout and display and considerable effort was taken with the cultivation and development of fruit varieties.

MS 62 BR103/6 Plan and notes by second Viscount Palmerston on fruit grown within the garden, 1769

MS 62 BR103/6 Plan and notes by second Viscount Palmerston on fruit grown within the garden, 1769

The kitchen garden at Broadlands House in Romsey was developed in the eighteenth century and the design of it showed an appreciation of the ascetics as well as the productivity and the variety of fruit to be grown. Fruit was an essential part of the diet in a household and would be used to impress guests with unusual varieties. The Italian practice of fresh fruit at the end of a meal became the height of fashion in the nineteenth century.

The Perkins Agricultural Library at the University contains a range of books that reflect this interest in both the planning and cultivation of kitchen gardens and the craft of growing fruit trees. Guides on the development and successful propagation of fruit plants include Dr Thomas Andrew Knight’s A treatise on the culture of the apple and pear and on the manufacture of cider and perry (London, 1818); William Forsyth A treatise on the culture and management of fruit trees ( London, 1803) and Charles McIntosh The orchard (London, 1839).

Court Pendu from Rare Books Perkins SB 356 Charles McIntosh The orchard (London, 1839)

Court Pendu from Rare Books Perkins SB 356 Charles McIntosh The orchard (London, 1839)

In addition to practical advice provided in such works, others such as The Complete family piece provided recipes for medicinal cures and for cooking.

“To make an apple tansy
Take 3 Pippins, slice them round in thin Slices, and fry them with Butter; then beat 4 Eggs with 6 Spoonfuls of Cream and a little Rose-water, Nutmeg and Sugar and stir them together, and pour it over the Apples. Let it fry a little and then turn it with a Pye Plate. Garnish with Lemon and Sugar stewed over it.”

[Rare Books Perkins TX 151 William Thomas Smyth The complete family-piece and, country gentleman, and farmer’s best guide (1739)]

Knight’s Treatise has a manuscript note added at the end of the volume by James Corbett suggesting the best fruit to make cider:

“The fruit I should recommend for cider is the Black Norman, the Green or Brown Thorn, the Red Stier and the Wilding. If you plant these sorts, they will be all ripe together and therefore fit to grind at the same time, which is of very great importance in making cider. If you grind one fruit quite mellow and another quite green, you will find the fermenting (which spoils all ciders) not easily prevented.”

Apple Day is now an integral part of the calendar of many villages, local authorities and city markets and a focus for activities organised by a range of organisations such as the National Trust properties, Wildlife Trusts, as well as museums and galleries and horticultural societies. For information on the day go to: http://www.national-awareness-days.com/apple-day.html

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