Heritage apples are piquing the interest of chefs, too. The Ethicurean in Bristol is one restaurant finding novel uses for the 60-plus varieties it grows in its own orchard. For example, head chef Mark McCabe uses crab apple verjus (a juice made by pressing some unripe fruits) as a local alternative to imported lemons. “Crab apples are a great source of acidity and much more appropriate in British cuisine than citrus,” said McCabe. “We ferment the juice into a dry and very sharp verjus and use it for balance in our cooking – such as to top a beetroot, buttermilk and blackcurrant dish.”
One exciting aspect of the British apple renaissance is searching for apple varieties present in horticultural histories but “lost” in the landscape. And the efforts of heritage apple seekers do literally bear fruit.
Lydia Crump from Herefordshire’s Artistraw Cidery and Orchard shares the tale of the rediscovery of an apple with the characterful name Knotted Kernel. “These majestic trees – with fruit the colour of rubies, and the shape and size of cherries – were thought to be lost, until in the 1980s it was discovered growing in New Zealand! But then we found 60-year-old trees that had been growing here in Herefordshire all along. Now it’s an apple we use a lot in our cider.”
Apple detectives in Sussex, meanwhile, are continuing to scour the land for a variety known as the Petworth Non Pareil, which still bears the sad label of “extinct”. Horticultural archives suggest that this firm and crisp medium-sized green apple with a thin brushing of russet (reddish brown) was probably bred by Lord Egremont and his head gardener Mr Slade at Petworth House early in the 19th Century, before disappearing from view. If a Petworth Non Pareil tree does still exist, it will most likely be hiding away in an old garden or overlooked plot of land just waiting to be spotted.
Britain’s apple detectives draw on a host of criteria to identify their quarry. Colour descriptions take in yellow, red, green or russet, with additional nods to flecks and streaks. Shape can be defined as flattish, rounded, conical, oblong, oval, angular or ribbed. First flowering times between early May and mid-June are another identifier, as is the ripening period (generally between August and October). Then there’s the detail of how well each variety takes to storage.