HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES? From being associated with forbidden fruits in the Garden of Eden to poisoned apples in fairy tales to being the first word most English speakers learn to say from the alphabet, apples are definitively ubiquitous. Yet, many of us, myself included, could be accused of taking this fruit for granted by thinking of them in terms of red or green. Scratch the surface of a barrel of apples and there is a lot more to them than just Pink Ladies and Granny Smiths.
David Llewellyn is currently right in the middle of his harvest at his orchard in Lusk, North County Dublin (llewellynsorchard.ie). “It’s main applepicking time for most of the varieties,” he tells me over the phone on a recent autumn evening. Since 1999, he’s been growing a core group of about a dozen varieties of apples as well as a number of heritage varieties on his beautiful, modestly sized orchard, less than a 40-minute drive from Dublin’s city centre. He chose his varieties, a mixture of Irish and UK heritage, such as the Kerry Pippin and the Norfolk Royal Russet, because they weren’t in any of the shops, as well as for their flavour and hardiness.
Cider brewer Mark Jenkinson named his award-winning Cockagee Cider after an old Irish cider apple, thought to be extinct. The name gives an insight into Jenkinson’s interest in the history of apples on our island. “The earliest evidence of apples being eaten in Ireland were 5,000-year-old pips of wild Irish crab apple, found at an archaeological excavation in County Meath,” Jenkinson explains in an article on a brief history of Irish apples on Cider Ireland.com.
“Most people would be very surprised to hear that 200 years ago we had way more apples growing in this country than we do today,” says grower David Llewellyn.
“When you look at old ordnance survey maps, you can see where the old orchards were all over the country, from east coast to west coast, north to south. Most of that has disappeared.”
Jenkinson agrees that, in the 20th century particularly, Ireland lost a lot of its apple heritage. An important event that changed the course of Irish apple growing was in 1937, when the Irish government encouraged farmers with State-funded grants to remove their Irish trees and replace them with modern varieties developed in the UK and elsewhere. “It was a progressive thing at the time,” Jenkinson says. “The motivation was to help farmers grow commercial viable varieties. Irish apples can taste delicious but some of them look like potatoes.” Apart from aesthetics, the modern varieties were hardier and more disease-resistant, so it made sense at the time to protect the farmers by helping them to grow tougher varieties of apples.
As you’re probably aware, it can be tricky to find Irish-grown apples, let alone heritage Irish varieties, outside of specialist food stores and farmers’ markets. Our supermarkets are instead populated with imported Pink Ladies and other trendy apples from around the world. Llewellyn talks about how the globalised food chain means that multinational supermarkets want to work with fewer suppliers who can keep up with larger demands for particular apples, rather than dealing with lots of smaller, local growers.
Some of the major apples, such as the Pink Lady, are actually patented brands that require a licence to grow. So, even if we had the climate in Ireland to grow this popular variety, the Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia, who own the plant breeders’ rights in multiple countries, might not give us permission to do so.
Over the past few decades, there has been a push-back against this type of pomaceous monopoly with organisations such as the Irish Seed Savers’ Association working to protect, rebuild and conserve Irish biodiversity. One of the major achievements of the Association, who earlier this week were awarded an Irish Food Writers’ Guild Community Food Award, was to create the Native Apple Collection containing more than 140 varieties of apples, thus preserving the seeds for future generations.
The Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co Leitrim, has a 15-year-old orchard which is home to more than 50 varieties of apples of Irish and UK heritage.
“Most of our initial stock was acquired from the Irish Seed Savers’ Association,” explains Hans Wieland of The Organic Centre, who were highly commended in the Irish Food Writers’ Guild Community Food Awards.
One of the varieties they grow in their orchard is Lady’s Finger of Offaly, an oblong-shaped apple that is a mixture of red, yellow, orange an green in colour. “It’s dry, crisp and sweet, unlike any other apple. It’s unique,” says Wieland. The Organic Centre sell apples and apple juice directly from their shop, as well as from outlets in Sligo. They’re hosting a Fruit Growing Workshop on Saturday, November 5th, for those of you who are interested in finding out more about the Centre and their apples.
David Llewellyn sells his Irish apples every Saturday in the Temple Bar Food Market in Dublin, and in Dún Laoghaire Market every Sunday. Elsewhere, you’ll find marvellous apples and juices grown and pressed by the Traas Family at
The Apple Farm in Cahir, Co Tipperary. Julie and Rod Calder-Potts of Highbank Orchards in Kilkenny are well-known for their delicious apple syrups, ciders and juices. This autumn, why not make Irish-grown apples the apple of your eye?