Up the Very British Apples and Pears

Lost and found

Britain’s Brogdale Horticultural Trust, home of the National Fruit Collection, houses over 2,300 varieties of the nearly 8,000 types of apple that have been given names at some point during history. About 1,200 apple varieties are indigenous to Britain, but farming policy and the spread of supermarkets have resulted in most shops selling only a few locally grown examples every year.

It is difficult now to find the myriad regional varieties—Gloucester Cross, Flower of Kent, Beauty of Bath—in the regions after which they are named. However, farmers’ markets and increasing consumer dissatisfaction with bland imports are encouraging a more diverse range to be enjoyed, as well as a much-needed resurgence of interest in protecting Britain’s traditional orchards.

Not just Granny Smith

Apples are usually considered to be either dessert or cooking apples. For instance, the Bramley (properly called Bramley’s Seedling) has such sharp, acidic flesh that it needs to be cooked to be appreciated at its best. However, several varieties, such as Britain’s top seller—the Cox’s Orange Pippin—can be enjoyed both ways. 

Two of the more unusual varieties of apple that are not too difficult to locate are the James Grieve, a dessert apple that can be used for cooking if it is picked early enough, and the Discovery, which has hints of raspberry and is best eaten soon after it is picked.

The Pearmain is said to be the oldest-named apple in England. It was first recorded in 1204 and the Worcester Pearmain is now the most well-known type.

All the members of the Russet family, which includes the Egremont Russet, Royal Russet and Golden Russet, are delicious raw or cooked, being particularly prized for their wonderful nutty flavour.

In the 19th century, the Blenheim Orange, which comes from Oxfordshire, was considered to be the finest apple available over the Christmas period. Like the now hugely popular Cox’s Orange Pippin, it is a member of the Pippin family.

Pear varieties

Many traditional orchards contain pear trees, which can produce fruit for up to 300 years. There are around 1,000 varieties of pear, of which about 700 have been developed in Britain. The most common of these are the Williams, Conference and Comice pears. John Stair, a Berkshire schoolmaster, produced the Williams in 1770, and the Conference was created by Thomas Rives in 1874. It went on to win a first-class certificate at the 1885 International Pear Conference.

In Worcestershire, where perry (pear cider) was first made, the pear has been incorporated into various city and council coats of arms, and the large cooking pear, Black Worcester, is still grown in the area.