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Thursday, 21 November 2013

An apple a day

by Helen Roberts

Name three things Somerset is famous for and most people will say cider, Cheddar cheese and the Glastonbury Festival. While I could certainly talk at length about cider and its versatility (particularly having enjoyed a lovely mug of mulled cider recently at bonfire night), it is where cider begins - the humble apple – that is the subject of today’s post. I live near Wells, in the heart of Somerset, and the trees in the apple orchards are positively dripping with fruit at the moment, a welcome sight for orchard growers who had a dismal season in 2012. It was National Apple Day on the 21st of October, and many places around the UK have been hosting events to celebrate England’s national fruit. Humans and the common apple have a long history together in terms of its cultivation and it is a familiar fruit throughout the world. Essentially, the richness of this sweet little fruit lies in its ordinariness.

A brief history of the apple


The (not so) humble apple.
The domestic apple (Malus domestica) is derived from both Malus sieversii (from Central Asia) and the crab apple (Malus sylvestris). The domestic apple is thought to be derived from Almaten in eastern Kazakhstan and the northern slopes of the Tien Shan Mountains. Apple taxonomy is highly complicated, and I shall save you the details, but the Malus genus is included in the Rosaceae family and has approximately 55 species, which are divided into intraspecific groups or cultivars.

Evidence of apple collecting has been found in Neolithic (11,200 years ago) and Bronze Age (around 4,500 years ago) sites throughout Europe and there is evidence for its cultivation as early as 1000 BC in Israel. Carbonized fruits dating from 6500 BC have been found at Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia and remains of both sour crab apples and a larger form, which may have been cultivated, have been found at lake dwellings of prehistoric origin in Switzerland.

It is thought that apple seeds were probably transported along the greatsilk trade routes from Central China to the Danube by travellers, either in saddlebags or in horses’ guts as early as Neolithic and Bronze Age times. The routes passed through Almaten and the northern slopes of the Tien Shan Mountains.

Improved forms of apples are thought to have developed in the FertileCrescent, which covers Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Apple trees reached Palestine in about 2000 BC and from there, were taken to Egypt.

Apples were important in Ancient Greece and various writings give evidence of the propagation of apple trees. Homer in the Odyssey, written between 900 and 800 BC, describes a large orchard of both apples and pears. It is the Romans that are credited with developing apple cultivation and storage. They recognized the importance and profitability of orchards and brought apples, and hence orchards, to Western Europe. Many Roman writers mentioned various cultivars of apples in their writings.

During medieval and pre-industrial times monasteries became major centres for apple production, particularly for cider production. King Henry VIII imported many different cultivars during his reign from 1509 to 1547, including pippins from France. In the mid 16th century, Dutch refugees escaping from religious persecution moved to Kent and Surrey to set up market gardens to supply London, and planted orchards for this purpose. During the 16th century and early 17th century grafting was further developed in Europe with specific rootstocks being imported from France and then propagated in English nurseries. European settlers, introduced apple culture to North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The first documented apple orchard in the USA was planted near Boston in 1625.

Cider making


The word cider is derived from the latin word sicera which means ‘strong drink’. The first recording of cider making is from Norfolk in 1205, but it was common in many different areas of England, particularly the western counties of Somerset, Devon, Worcester and Hereford. Apples suitable for cider have a sweet juice and an acid pulp. The names given to cider apple varieties are lovely in themselves, varieties known as “bitter sweets” and “bitter sharps”, such as  Slack-me-Girdle, Foxwhelp, Lambrook pippin, Chisel Jersey, Porter’s Perfection and Royal Somerset.

Cider making takes part in late Autumn and the traditional method was to crush the apples between heavy stone wheels driven by horses. In the West Country the resulting pulp was then spread onto straw or wooden racks and cloths and a large sandwich or ‘cheese’ was made by laying one rack on top of the other. Set into a wooden press, it was squeezed repeatedly and the juice collected. I remember watching this method of cider production at a local farm as a child in Central Somerset. Today cider has made a come back and there are many smaller scale producers cropping up in areas of the West Country.

Bristol University has a long history of research into cider production at Long Ashton. The research station was originally set up to facilitate the development and improvement of West Country cider and formed the National Institute of Fruit and Cider (NIFC). Scientists identified the best apple varieties, growing conditions, and production methods for growers and cider-makers; many cultivars, such as Ashton Brown Jersey, orginate from Long Ashton.   

Weird and wonderful facts


Apples are very much entwined in our culture and history. Many popular apple-based phrases, such as “the apple of my eye”, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, “rotten apple”, “rotten to the core” and “upset the apple cart”, are embedded within our culture. Other words also have apples at their core (groan);  costermonger – a street seller of fruit – comes from the Costard apple. “Costard” means ribbed and gave rise to “coster”, while “monger” means seller.

Erika Janik, author of Apple: AGlobal History, said the apple is “Enmeshed in the folklore and history of nations around the globe, apples have been associated with love, beauty, luck, health, comfort, pleasure, wisdom, temptation, sensuality and fertility – all this in addition to good eating and drinking.”

Apples at the Botanic Garden


If you managed to get to the Bee and PollinationFestival at the Botanic Garden, you will have seen a small cider press in action. You may have also seen a potted orchard on display near the pond, featuring a number of varieties of apple, including Bramley, Golden Delicious, Lord Derby, Ashmead’s Kernel, Discovery, James Grieve, Spartan, Fiesta and Greensleeves. It was yet another example of how pollinators are critical to our food security – pollination of our orchards and the production of the (not so) humble apple.

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