Apple varieties for the orchard

In a recent article, I discussed some general considerations when selecting fruit trees for a small orchard. This article considers our choice of apple varieties in more detail. We already have a few gnarly old trees around the house, two of which are Bramley’s Seedling, the others of unknown sorts, and nine young trees trained as oblique cordons within the kitchen garden: Beauty of Bath, Saint Edmund’s Pippin, Hubbard’s Pearmain, Ribston Pippin, Nonpareil, Court of Wick Pippin, Reine des Reinettes, Ashmead’s Kernel, and Cornish Aromatic.

Had we considered developing the orchard from the outset, I would have reserved at least the magnificent Ribston Pippin and the aromatic Ashmead’s Kernel for the orchard and planted alternatives as cordons. Not being willing to grub out the cordons and replace them with different varieties, though, we must find suitable alternatives for the orchard. We are looking to plant six complementary varieties to complete our collection. Generally, I prefer to seek out old varieties that were, in their day, highly regarded for their dessert or culinary qualities. So, having already planted our shortlisted varieties as cordons, it was time to revisit the old books to identify further candidates. In particular, I have made extensive reference to John Lindley’s 1831 Guide to the Orchard and the Kitchen Garden, and Robert Hogg’s famous Fruit Manual, especially the fifth edition of 1884.

In the orchard, I am keen to put in a couple of good cooking apples, along with a couple of late dessert types that will store well. As we already have a couple of Bramley’s, even though they are now rather decrepit, I am not keen to plant a new one in the orchard. Although it is the most commonly grown commercial apple in this country, and widely considered the English cooking apple of choice, I am not quite so convinced. If held long on the tree and properly ripened, they can be good apples, with the perfect example even enjoyed for the dessert, but, generally, they are used when quite green and they have so much acidity that a great deal of sugar or other sweetening agent is needed to make them palatable. To my mind, this is not good for the flavour, nor, of course, the most healthy option. They cook down to a puree, which is sometimes useful, but not always, and although the texture of the puree is quite good, I am not overly fond of the flavour. Certainly they have a robust ‘green apple’ flavour that is preserved well in the puree, but to my taste it lacks any aromatic qualities. I rather imagine that many would disagree with my assessment of this most famous of culinary fruits, but I more often cook whatever dessert apples I have to hand, especially from my gnarly old specimens of unknown varieties. These usually keep their shape, which for many dishes I prefer, need only a little sweetening in comparison, and have great flavour and texture.

Instead of Bramley’s Seedling, I have selected another great culinary apple, the Calville Blanc d’Hiver, along with the dual purpose Blenheim Orange. The Calville Blanc d’Hiver is known as the classic French apple for Tarte aux Pommes and, despite its rather unattractive appearance, appears to be a highly regarded culinary sort. Blenheim orange, on the other hand, although suited to culinary purposes also makes a very fine dessert apple. We were able to taste this variety at the recent apple festival at Brogdale, which I reviewed in a previous article. Although I have never cooked with it, I understand that Blenheim Orange cooks down to a puree, whereas Calville Blanc d’Hiver keeps its shape. Thus, I should have my culinary needs well catered for with these two selections.

For the dessert apples, I favour an old fashioned sort; firm with a robust aromatic flavour and with some acidity to balance the sweetness. That is not to say that one cannot find old fashioned characteristics in more modern varieties, but I still find the older varieties more interesting to grow. After much consideration, I selected Margil and Court Pendu Plat as late dessert apples. Both were well regarded in Victorian times, although not much known today. They both hail from France, Court Pendu Plat being particularly ancient. Margil is probably a classic old dessert apple, somewhat of the same ilk as Ribston Pippin and its descendant, Cox’s Orange Pippin. Court Pendu Plat, on the other hand, is said to offer a pronounced pear drop flavour. Both should keep well, extending our apple season into late winter.

To the above four, I added, for variety, Pitmaston Pine Apple and Norfolk Royal Russet. Both are russets. Pitmaston Pine Apple, so named for the hint of musky pineapple like flavour, is said to offer a rich and aromatic flavour. The Norfolk Royal Russet is a little unusual for me, as this is quite a modern discovery. We first tried this at the recent apple festival at Brogdale and were sufficiently impressed to want to include it in the orchard. It is a russet sport of the Norfolk Royal, which originated in the early 1900s, the russet form being introduced in 1983. It produces particularly small fruit, but with a delicious balance of sugars and acidity, highly aromatic, and with the nuttiness of a good russet. It is also quite a handsome little thing, if one appreciates russet apples, being splotched generously with crimson. Neither of these is a great keeper, but they compliment the others well, spreading the season and bringing different flavour experiences.

This selection of apples should provide apples over quite a long season, two keeping until April or May under ideal conditions, although I rather suspect we might not do quite so well. Calville Blanc, Blenheim Orange, Royal Norfolk Russet and Pitmaston Pine Apple are all in pollination group D. Margil is group C, which is fine, but Court Pendu Plat is group G, so very late flowering. Our cordon apples are all group C or D, and in our locale I am not sure we have anything we could rely upon for pollination. There are not so many compatible pollinators to choose from, and none that I particular want to grow, so rather than plant a specific domestic apple cultivar, one can turn to the crab apple. These produce masses of blossom over a long period and make excellent pollinators. I imagine that there are crab apples in the local hedgerows, but we will also plant one in the orchard. The bees will certainly enjoy it, and it should help a great deal with pollination.

Three fine apple varieties: Ribston Pippin, Norfolk Royal Russet, and Blenheim Orange

Three fine apple varieties: Ribston Pippin, Norfolk Royal Russet, and Blenheim Orange

The season of use is a little difficult to pin down as various sources sometimes provide differing indications. However, the following might be reasonable estimates:

  • Calville Blanc – pollination group D – in use from January to April
  • Blenheim Orange – pollination group D – in use from November to February
  • Margil – pollination group C – in use from November to February
  • Court Pendu Plat – pollination group G – in use from December to May
  • Pitmaston pine apple – pollination group D – in use from October to December
  • Royal Norfolk Russet – pollination group D – in use from September to December

If I could only plant two apple trees, I would undoubtedly select Ribston Pippin and Blenheim Orange. Following those, perhaps the triploid Ashmead’s Kernel. Those with limited space might consider the benefits of cordons, as these take up very little space and allow a number of different varieties to be grown where even one full sized tree would not fit.

Fruit identification images are reproduced with permission from the National Fruit Collection, www.nationalfruitcollection.org.uk.

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