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Extract from Part Six: Fruit

Sievers Apple - Tian Shan, Kazakhstan

Eat an apple and wherever you are in the world, whatever its shape, size, colour or taste, its origin can be traced back to the Tian Shan, the mountains that separate China and Central Asia. As the birthplace of the apple, the biodiversity of the Tian Shan holds the past, present and future of one of our most popular fruits. Oxford plant scientist Barrie Juniper was one of the first Western scientists to visit the forests after the collapse of the Soviet Union and over the next fifteen years he documented as many wild apples as he could. He was the first scientist to confirm that all domesticated apples originate from the Tian Shan, that it was the gene pool for all the world’s apples.

On a sunny autumn morning, I met Juniper at his orchard in Wytham, a picture-book Oxfordshire village with an abbey, thatched cottages and a 600-year-old pub. Completely hidden behind tall walls was a secret garden of one hundred apple trees, some fifteen feet tall, others more like thick untamed bushes. As we moved from tree to tree, picking fruit, Juniper introduced each one: the Newton Wonder, a chance seedling that had been discovered growing alongside a Derbyshire pub in the 1870s that went on to become a popular cooking apple; thin, conical apples named Lady’s Fingers; and Brownlee’s Russet, an apple from the 1840s with an intense acid flesh that tasted of fruit drops, all hidden beneath a scaly, rough skin. ‘Wonderful apple,’ said Juniper, rubbing one clean against his jacket. ‘The perfect balance of sweet and sour and with a skin so thick it kept until Christmas.’ We ate apples that tasted of pineapple (Ananas Reinette) and bit into small russeted varieties that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. ‘“There’s a dish of leather-coats for you,”’ Juniper quoted as he picked out one of the apples. ‘Ugly and rough it might be, but in the sixteenth century this apple was sold from every barrow in London.’

While some varieties became popular because of a chance discovery of a single tree, others were the creation of skilled nurserymen, masters in the art of cross-pollination. By the end of the nineteenth century, people in Britain could eat or drink from a different kind of dessert, cooking or cider apple every day for more than four years and never have the same one twice.

The apples in Juniper’s walled orchard capture a big part of the fruit’s great appeal: its diversity and seasonality. In the 1920s, the nurseryman and fruit expert Edward Bunyard wrote The Anatomy of Dessert, providing an eater’s guide to the tastiest varieties, from the strawberry flavour of a Worcester Pearmain to the ‘melting, almost marrow flesh, abundant juice and fragrant aroma’ of the James Grieve. And then there was the Blenheim Orange, an eighteenth-century apple grown from the pip of a discarded apple core that had grown next to the drystone wall of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Luckily, the tree and its fruit were discovered by a tailor named George Kempster (which is why the variety is also called the ‘Kempster’). This apple, said Bunyard, has ‘a nutty warm aroma ... and in this noble fruit [there’s] a mellow austerity as of a great Port in its prime’.

Bunyard’s descriptions provide a glimpse into a wealth of diversity that no longer exists. By the 1970s, apple eaters in different parts of the world had the nagging feeling something was missing. ‘Apples, apples everywhere and hardly one to eat,’ declared a newspaper article that went on to say, ‘The big red and yellow plastic spheres, waiting in the market for the unsuspecting, are so suspiciously, so blatantly, thick skinned and shiny, it is easy to pass on by. What we must live on is the memory of what good apples taste like.’

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