Brogdale apple festival, a review

Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection, hosted its Apple Festival – touted as the ‘Biggest and the Best Apple Festival’ on 19–20 October 2013. Being something of an apple enthusiast, and appreciating the importance of the National Fruit Collection in terms of the preservation of our fruit growing heritage, I was very keen to make a visit. On face value, Brogdale really ought to be in a position to put on a fantastic event for anyone interested in orchard fruits; I cannot think of anywhere else with such potential. As it is quite a long way for us to travel, we wanted to make the most of the weekend, and met up with our good friends Serafiina and Arto in London the day before, and went together on the first day of the festival.

The apple festival at Brogdale, Kent

Serafiina and I had been especially looking forward to the event, and checked the website regularly before the day. To begin with, there was almost no information about this year’s event and the website was basically from the previous year. Surprisingly close to the event the website did finally have some new details, but still had content from 2012; we both thought it a very poor effort indeed. It was not long before the lack of information caused us some problems, not to mention considerable mystification. Serafiina and Arto have a delightful miniature poodle, named Siiri; hardly a rampaging beast. As we parked up in the adjacent field, we noticed several others arriving with dogs in tow. Imagine our surprise when we were intercepted in the outer courtyard and informed that dogs were not permitted. The gentleman in question was rather unhelpful and not at all understanding. We pointed out that we had checked the website details very carefully and there was no mention of dogs being excluded, and it was rather inappropriate to announce this at the entrance. This is, after all, a largely outdoor event, and even the indoor areas are little more than barns or sheds.

We did, of course, enquire as to the reasoning behind this decision, but from two different people we received two equally silly answers. The first, from the fellow that intercepted us, was that there was food at the festival. That would be much like the food stalls present at any country fair, festival, or other outdoor event where dogs are welcomed. The reasoning was even more nonsensical when dogs were permitted to hang around the cafe in this courtyard area, where Serafiina and Arto were forced to take it in turns looking after Siiri. Whilst waiting, many, and I suspect equally mystified and disgruntled dog owners, were observed hanging around in this ‘holding area’. The second silly reason that was proffered by another member of staff was that pesticides were used on the site so that it is dangerous for dogs to wander around. The use of chemicals so powerful that they could harm a dog would certainly be outrageous, if I thought for one moment that it was true. We offered to constrain Siiri by carrying her, or even popping her in the rucksack with only her head poking out, but for no particular reason this was not acceptable.

Naturally, it is entirely within the rights of the organisers of any event to decide on the rules, and if they do not want dogs present, they can exclude them. They ought not, though, to make up silly excuses and they really should make it quite plain in the festival information that dogs are not welcome. We travelled quite a distance, and as we had specifically checked this point on the website, I think we have every right to be rather disgruntled. Interestingly, by the time we returned to London, we found that the organisers had added just such a notice to the website. To be sure that we had not made a mistake, we checked a cached copy of the website, where we confirmed that the notice is missing. I suppose it is better than ignoring the matter entirely, but I doubt that it helped many people appearing so late.

This disappointment rather set the tone for the day. There were five main apple related areas to the festival – fruit tree sales, fruit identification, a fruit display, fruit tasting and sales area, and the orchards – in addition to various ancillary stalls, the latter being rather poor in comparison with similar sorts of events I have been to before. As this is primarily an apple festival, I am only interested in reviewing those main apple related features.

Fruit trees for sale
Fruit trees for sale

The first area we came across was the fruit tree sales area. This offered a good range of fruit trees, nicely laid out; predominantly apples and pears. The prices, though, were rather steep. I bought one maiden pear for £22, Fondant d’Automne, a variety that is not so widely available and one that I was considering for our orchard. There is nothing wrong with the specimen, or I would not have bought it, but I have certainly acquired more robust bare root plants from specialist nurseries such as Keepers Nursery and R. V. Roger, and for less cost. Forms such as espaliers and fans are often very poorly trained indeed, especially those found at garden centres, but those on offer here seemed reasonable, although at the pricey end of the spectrum; we noted some at £55, so this was not the place to look for bargains.

The next area we ventured into comprised two rooms; the outer had a couple of desks at which fruit identification was being undertaken, whilst the inner housed a display of apple varieties. I had previously sent samples of one variety of apple to Brogdale for identification – and am still waiting for the results about eight weeks later. This service, if it actually provides an identification, is quite reasonable at £20. However, I had read that those attending the apple festival could get one free identification on the day, so as we had another mystery apple in the garden we took several samples and queued for rather a long time to see the fruit experts. Two people were involved in the process, although the main expert appeared to be Joan Morgan – one of the authors of The Book of Apples, and The New Book of Apples, the latter of which I have in my collection. It was, of course, a brief pleasure to meet an expert in the field, although no identification was forthcoming. It is a difficult task to attempt to identify an apple variety on the spot, and without access to supporting tools. I find it a little surprising that the process relied essentially on the experience and memory of one person. I would have thought that something a little more advanced might be possible here, such as a database of fruits and their characteristic features, such as provided by the website. One might be forgiven for imagining that the identification process at the National Fruit Collection would be a little more methodical and rather more effective. We did not see any successful identifications whilst waiting in the queue, but I have no idea what the overall success rate might be. The experience was a little disappointing, although I appreciate that, without appropriate tools, it is not an easy task. What I found to be poor was that there was only one desk at which the identifications were taking place. As it takes some time to consider each sample, this led to a very slow moving queue.

The apple display was, in one way only, quite impressive – there were a great many varieties on display, six samples of each, clearly labelled and sorted in alphabetical order. It was, though, an almost entirely pointless exhibit, except to convey the great variation that exists in form and colour. Putting aside the number of fruits of display, what real use is it? Certainly, if one had a variety in mind and wished to see only what its external appearance might be, it may well be one of the varieties included in this display. One was not permitted to handle any of the fruit – perhaps with good reason, as one would not want to see the display muddled up – but there was little that could be gained from just looking at different forms. This tells the visitor hardly anything. The only exception was a small display of varieties gathered under the instruction of Henry VIII.

There is so much that one could do with an apple display, to provide interest and information to visitors. So many apples have an interesting history that could have been presented in various ways. There are so many ways of creating informative and interesting presentations of apples: displays of apples suited to different areas of the country; displays of related varieties; displays presenting the great pomologists and nurserymen who have contributed so much to the cataloguing, propagation, and development of various fruits; information on apple diseases, and varieties that are susceptible or resistant to different problems; fruits organised according to various eating characteristics or seasons of use; or displays of apple uses, with appropriate varieties for each purpose. There are vast possibilities for providing something of great interest and use to the beginner and the enthusiast alike. When one puts aside the number of varieties on display this was otherwise a poor, uninspired, and uninformative display, that wasted the opportunity of promoting our apple heritage. Perhaps, for me, this was the most frustrating aspect of the event; knowing what could have been done here, and seeing a rather superficial effort, that does not seem at all what one would expect from apple experts and enthusiasts.

Moving on to the last potentially useful area; a large barn where an array of apples and a few pears were laid out for tasting and sales. There was quite a large of number of varieties available for tasting here, and one could buy one or more bags that could be filled with the fruits of one’s choice. The organisation was somewhat haphazard with too many people pushing and shoving in a disorderly manner. Nonetheless, it was interesting to try so many different sorts. This experience could have been greatly improved with better organisation and a better collection of fruit. Whilst there were a few really delicious examples, there were so many that were bland and uninteresting, and some that were positively dreadful, either in texture or flavour, and often both. Before anyone points out that this is surely a matter of taste, perhaps it is to some degree, but we were all agreed that many of the apples on display were rather poor. I would have expected this to offer a selection of the very finest varieties available, and was surprised that so many of the great varieties of yesteryear made no appearance here. It seems rather likely that some of those on display were simply past their best. On the other hand, some were very clearly far from ripe. Comice pears made an appearance in a hard, gritty, and tasteless form, which is in no way representative of the properly ripened fruit. I cannot see what excuse there could be for such poor specimens – surely the orchards here have more to offer, and if one sort is not yet ripe, then another ought to be substituted?

Apples and pears available for tasting and purchase
Apples and pears available for tasting and purchase, not all in good condition

Much as with the apple displays, the tasting lacked imagination and creativity. There is just so much potential to present the fruits in interesting and informative ways. For example, one could have a small selection of the finest varieties from the Victorian garden, and a selection of modern sorts, so that one could compare the tastes and textures; or a selection of related varieties illustrating how they have been bred to combine the various characteristics of the parent fruits; or a rather more careful selection of apples could have been made to expose the various characteristics of the fruit – the aromatic, the sweet, the tart, the nutty, and those with particular flavour components, such as the pear drop, pineapple, or strawberry notes that some sorts offer. Of course, some of these characteristics were present in the varieties on display, but it was not a good selection in my view, nor laid out in such a way as to generate some interest, just crates of unorganised fruits of variable quality.

Norfolk Royal Russet
Norfolk Royal Russet

The highlight of the visit, though, was found in the tasting area: a small russet apple that I had not come across before, called Norfolk Royal Russet, which I later found out is a russetted form of Norfolk Royal. When we first tasted this small, rough skinned, brown russet, some with a little red spotting and streaking on the sun side, Arto and I were not entirely sure what to make of it. The first taste is best described as interesting. It is fairly firm, and not overly juicy. On further exploration one finds a fruit with a somewhat unusual flavour, offering a good balance of acidity and sweetness and a distinct nuttiness that is shared with certain other russets. It is not as immediately obviously delicious as an aromatic apple such as the Ribston Pippin, but it is the sort of apple one might return to again and again for its interesting flavour and texture. It is quite delicious, even if it surrenders its deliciousness a little reluctantly, and I would think it could be a very good apple to eat with cheese. All four of us agreed on the other clear winners from this tasting – Ribston Pippin and Blenheim Orange. The former we knew already from our own garden, but were not disappointed to find it at the top of our favourites here too, whilst the latter is one that I have on my list for our orchard. It is a little sharper than Ribston Pippin, and perhaps not quite so aromatic, but that is to be expected, as this is a dual purpose variety, appreciated as a good cooker or a refreshing dessert apple.

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

Finally, there were orchard tours on offer – either on foot or by tractor. I imagine that, in the presence of an enthusiastic fruit expert, such a tour – especially if it involved tasting various fruits along the way – could be of great interest. However, the weather was quite dreadful when we got to that point, and the rest of the festival so disappointing, that nobody had any desire to trek around the orchards, nor was it clear that there would be an expert guide.

The orchard was not a tempting prospect on this rainy day
The orchard was not a tempting prospect on this rainy day

Like our friends, we were looking forward to this event with a great deal of excitement and anticipation; I am an enthusiastic grower of apples, pears, and other fruits, and it would not be hard to capture my attention at such an event. It was, however, an almost entirely disappointing experience; aside from finding one more potential variety for our orchard we gained little from it. Pricey fruit sales, a general impression of somewhat unfriendly or disinterested staff, disappointing fruit identification, poor apple displays, and an almost complete lack of anything that might capture the interest of beginner or enthusiast alike.

I find it hard to understand how it could be so disappointing, when one would envisage there being so much potential for a fantastic event at what I had always considered to be an important place in the fruit world. In my view, it lacked imagination, and looked like a somewhat minimal effort apology for a festival, rather than the grand celebration of our apple growing heritage it could, and arguably should, have been. I am rather saddened that, at one place where one would hope to find enthusiasm for our apples and pears, it seemed lacking. Perhaps one of the orchard tours that we heard are undertaken at various times of the year might be worth trying, but I am in no hurry to return; “The Biggest and the Best Apple Festival” – I have nothing to compare it with at the moment, but I hope this is not true.

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