Lost Gold: Scrumping for the Forgotten Treasures of the British Orchard

October isn’t all stocking up on family size bags of funsize mars bars and cursing in the general direction of half cored out pumpkins – no, it’s also apple season. If you live even vaguely near the countryside, you will probably have seen signs for “Apple Day”, held at gardens, orchards, National Trust properties, and other fine establishments. It’s the one time of year when the general public see more than half a dozen variety of apples, and more importantly, they’re all fresh off the local trees.

Over the last two weekends we’ve managed three visits to local apple days, each charmingly different. At Harlow Carr, a greenhouse was packed with bowls of apples in reds, greens, yellows, and the air was rich with the smell of fresh fruit. In a cramped, mysterious room, experts pored over the tiniest of details to identify mystery apples brought from gardens across the region. It was here I saw some Bardsey Island apples for the first time, from a tree on the misty island, redolent with mythology and mystery, nicknamed “Merlin’s apple”. Perfect for a fruit with as long a history and firm place in British folklore. At the local Ripon Walled Garden, we wandered through the bishop’s orchard and watched the bees hum back to the hive, after foraging the last flowers of the season on the ivy and herb garden borders. At Nunnington Hall, we listened to the wisdom of their 85 year old fruit expert, who spoke about trees as proudly as you’d hear parents speaking about their child graduating from Oxford. I felt a guilty flush over my cheeks as he spoke of two out of the three lonely peaches getting scrumped in the previous season; not guilty, but I knew if I’d seen them growing on that warm south facing wall that I would have been tempted!

We’ve also been trawling the hedgerows for promising looking crop – ever wonder what happens to that apple core you threw out of a car window? It could be the next Bloody Ploughman

This wasn’t my first introduction to the bounty of the autumn orchard. I’m already a seasoned reprobate, having been chased with a rather large stick out of the vicarage garden of the Yorkshire town I grew up in after scrumping their delicious striped apples, aged around 6 or 7. Since then I’ve tried to avoid close encounters of the cross clergyman kind by making friends with cider makers, wassailers, and by scouring the hedgerows for folorn wild apple trees. As an archaeologist, that tiresome old question gets asked again and again; “found any treasure?” I can honestly reply, yes – in the red-gold blush of a Ribston Pippin, bold against the curling leaves of its parent tree against a brick garden wall at Nunnington Hall. Or the green-bronze roughness of an Acklam Russet, fresh fallen from a tree in the Fountains Abbey orchard, palm sized and warm to the touch. Or the heft of a huge, red-blushed Yorkshire Beauty, taking two hands to hold comfortably, full of the promise of warm, spiced goodness. Treasure indeed.

Scrumping is a sensual business. The air carries a hint of the juice locked inside – sweet, a sour tang, just caught when a breeze wanders through the trees. There are few more satisfying sounds than the heavy thunk of falling apples when you “nudge” a promising looking branch. Then, naturally, there is the taste. There are as many tastes to British apples as there are days of the year – in fact, more – perhaps up to 2000 cultivars. Some are the result of tireless breeding programmes to produce commercially viable, reliable crops, whilst some are happy accidents, and others like Arthur Turner produce magnificent blossom. Don’t let this seemingly massive bounty fool you – orchards are on the wane, since the time of commercial influxes from France, New Zealand, and America during the 1970s, the British orchard has declined by over 65% and these treasures of our local trees have vanished from greengrocer shelves.

I will not digress into tasting notes, or lamenting the loss of these unique ecological oases – because I have an actual PhD to write, and I think I could speak for as long on this as I could on my research. However, I will be continuing my search for lost trees as a personal project, and sporadically updating here. I’m also submitting a poster to the Hidden Heritage 2016 conference on the importance to recognising and caring for local fruit trees, and their rich history and heritage. I might even bring along a few tasters…

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