When selecting a range of apples to grow as cordons in the kitchen garden, I was keen to seek out interesting old varieties, and at the top of my list was the Ribston Pippin, also once known, amongst various other names, as the Glory of York. This fine dessert apple is interesting for various reasons. Not much heard of today, although it can still be found from time to time in garden centres and is readily sourced from specialist nurseries such as Keepers Nursery and R. V. Roger, it is thought likely to be a parent of Cox’s Orange Pippin, one of the few quintessentially English apples to still appear in supermarkets. In its day, it was one of the most popular apples in England, being widely propagated. Just a glance at the superlatives attached to this apple in the old books is enough to convince me that this variety is an essential part of our little collection. George Lindley, writing in 1831 says “The Ribston Pippin may be truly said to be one of the best, and certainly is one of the most popular dessert apples of the present day”. Robert Hogg, writing in the latter half of that century considers the description and, indeed, praise of this variety to be almost unnecessary due to its widespread cultivation “An apple so well known as to require neither description nor encomium”.
As to the origins of the Ribston Pippin, various authors report a similar account. Lindley, in his Guide to the Orchard and Kitchen Garden, 1831, provides the following explanation:
“It was raised, according to traditionary accounts, from some pips which were brought from Rouen, about the year 1688, and sown in the garden at Ribston Hall, near Knaresborough, in the county of York. A tree from these was planted out in the park, which grew to a very large size, and formed the subject of the present article.
I visited it in 1789, and found it in a very healthy state: it was, however, in a violent gale, in 1810, thrown down; and, five years afterwards, still continued to bear fruit, although lying on the ground.”
Robert Hogg, in his famous Fruit Manual, first published in 1860 although the following is taken from the fifth and final edition from 1884, provided some evidence of its rise in popularity towards the end of the 1700s, tracing its production in the well known Brompton Park Nursery:
“The Ribston Pippin did not become generally known till the end of the last century, and it is not mentioned in any of the editions of Miller’s Dictionary, or by any other author of that period; neither was it grown in the Brompton Park Nursery in 1770. In 1785 I find it was in that collection, when it was grown to the extent of a quarter of a row, or about twenty-five plants; and as this supply seems to have sufficed for three years’ demand, its merits must have been but little known. In 1788 it extended to one row, or about one hundred plants, and three years later to two rows; from 1791 it increased one row annually, till 1794, when it reached five rows. From these facts we may pretty well learn the rise and progress of its popularity. In 1847, in the same nursery, it was cultivated to the extent of about twenty-five rows, or 2,500 plants annually.”
Hogg also repeated the tale of Ribston Pippin’s origin from pips brought from Rouen in 1688. The New Book of Apples by Joan Morgan and Alison Richards, 1993, suggests it was raised circa 1707, and states that it was listed by nurseryman William Perfect of Pontefract, Yorkshire, in 1769. They suggest that it was declining in popularity by the 1890s, and a minor market variety by the 1930s. Christopher Stocks, in Forgotten Fruits, 2008, puts the date at circa 1709, and states that “no eating apple was more popular or more widely planted”. He also notes that William Perfect appears to have been the first nurseryman to take up the variety. What led to its decline, neither text suggests, though it seems that Cox’s Orange Pippin supplanted it as the most favoured dessert apple, a position is still holds today amongst English production.
Our cordon apples and pears are now in their third year, planted two seasons ago as one year old whips, and some are bearing fruit for the first time. Although not yet at its perfection, the recent winds brought down a handful of Ribston Pippins and, although said to be best after storing for a month or so, and being just a little under ripe, I could not resist tasting this most eagerly awaited variety. In truth, I would not regret having planted this variety if the fruit were merely of average quality – some things I just want to grow for other reasons – and, having been so keen to taste it, I was rather worried that I would be disappointed. I need not have been concerned.
The fruit produced this year appear rather larger than one might expect; most descriptions put the fruit at medium size at best, but ours are quite large apples. As few fruits were produced in this first year of bearing, size may well decline in subsequent years as the quantity of fruit increases. The apples are somewhat irregularly shaped, and perhaps not quite as handsome in appearance as they are in taste. The skin is a pale acid green turning yellow on the sun side, although other descriptions suggest that this will yellow further with maturity, with a broad area of dull flushing and some crimson streaking on the sun side, and also a little russetting, particularly around the stalk. The skin is just a little thick and slightly chewy. The flesh is firm and crisp, but not overly hard, with plentiful juice, and a highly aromatic flavour. As the sample I tasted was a little early, it had some acidity, although the finish was not overly acidic. Even so, this was an extremely delicious apple. It is rather difficult to convey further the flavour of such a fruit without resorting to the flowery prose of the wine taster, and I have no intention of doing that. Of its type, this is certainly one of the finest dessert apples I have tasted. I can only imagine how it may improve with a few weeks of storage, as the acidity mellows a little and the sweetness develops further. There are all of the signs of a truly exceptional fruit. Perhaps it will be bettered when I get to taste some of the other interesting varieties we have planted, but somehow I doubt it.
Lindley and Hogg both agree as to the aromatic properties of the Ribston Pippin, Lindley describing it as “Flesh pale yellow, firm, crisp. Juice saccharine, with a pungent, rich, and delicious aromatic flavour” and Hogg similarly “Flesh, yellow, firm, crisp, rich, and sugary, charged with a powerful aromatic flavour”.
Comparison with Cox’s Orange Pippin is inevitable, as Ribston Pippin is thought to be one of its parents. The Cox is also a fairly old variety, being first raised in 1825, and being grown more widely from the second half of the 1800s. Reading some accounts, I had rather expected Ribston Pippin to be a less refined form, rougher in flavour and texture, but I found the exact opposite. One can detect a similarity in the aromatic, crisp and juicy flesh, but in the Ribston Pippin, the overall balance seems to be better and the results entirely more refined, with the Cox appearing rather coarse in comparison.
That the Cox is a very good apple, there can be no doubt, and if it were not for its widespread commercial production, it might well have found a place in our kitchen garden or orchard. How it came to supplant a variety like Ribston Pippin is a little hard to see, though, as Cox is well known to be a rather difficult tree to maintain in good condition, being of only moderate vigour, very susceptible to canker and scab, and, unlike Ribston Pippin, rather unsuited to growing in some parts of the country. Nonetheless, according to the 2012 DEFRA Orchard Fruit Survey for England and Wales, Cox is still the most commonly grown dessert variety, by area, with 1697 hectares, representing over 31% of dessert varieties, and second overall only to the culinary apple Bramley’s Seedling with 1794 hectares. The only other significant individual variety is Gala, with 1312 hectares, representing 24%, although this is increasing whilst Cox is declining slightly, so one might expect Cox to lose its front place soon.
I have previously noticed that the Cox, typically held up as the finest example of an English dessert apple and by far the most widely available from supermarkets and greengrocers, does not stand up as well as expected against certain other sorts. For example, our ‘mystery apple’, which was the topic of a recent post, samples of which we recently sent to Brogdale for identification, is, to my mind, a far superior apple in its season of use. The comparison is a fair one, I think, as they are a similar type of apple. It would not be right, for example, to compare either the Cox or Ribston Pippin with a good russet apple, as the flavours are quite different; one could merely conclude which was of personal preference. The comparison of Cox with Ribston Pippin, or even with our mystery apple, though, is quite valid.
Most apples have their good and bad points; I can think of only a few downsides with Ribston Pippin. It is triploid, meaning that its pollen is of no use in pollinating other varieties. In isolation, one would need three compatible sorts to bear fruit on all. On the other hand, this is a relatively minor concern for those in residential areas, where, within the range of pollinating insects, there are typically sufficient apple trees around to provide reasonable pollination. A tendency to drop its fruit as they begin to ripen is another problem to watch for. The recent high winds certainly dislodged much of this year’s small crop. It was given an Award of Garden Merit (AGM) by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1993, as well an Award of Merit earlier in 1962, reflecting its properties as an easily cultivated and reliable variety. It is generally considered to offer average disease resistance, with different authorities presenting somewhat different views on specific susceptibilities. It appears to be resistant to scab, but slightly susceptible to canker. Overall, though, it is considered to be a vigorous sort and a good regular bearer, and suitable for cold areas, having some frost resistance.
Whatever led to the decline of the Ribston Pippin, it seems rather undeserved. Sadly, this once greatly admired apple is now relegated to an occasional garden variety, yet I cannot think of another that I would rather have in our modest collection.