Food director Janine Ratcliffe on why we should be championing homegrown varieties
Why we should be championing homegrown apples
What’s the deal with British apples?
At the moment, 40% of the apples we Brits eat are from native orchards. That’s quite a climb from 10 years ago, when the level was 28-30%, and it’s hoped that in another decade it will be as high as 60%. To try to boost the numbers, growers are constantly looking into new technologies for both cultivating and storing apples, so that the season lasts longer.
But growing apples is no easy business. Each one sold commercially has to be selected and picked by hand at optimum ripeness and quality. There’s no way such a process can be automated, so the industry relies on thousands of extra harvesting hands every season.
Historically, apples have been stored in a cold environment – although these days the technology is far more advanced than that. Apples are essentially kept in a chilled, low-oxygen, low-carbon dioxide, nitrogenrich atmosphere, which means they go into ‘stasis’, with no loss of quality. In fact, some apples thrive in this environment, often developing a sweeter taste as the sugars are converted.
Why can’t I buy British all year?
From September onwards there are plenty of British-grown apples to go around, but because the apple season effectively ends in May, it’s hard to find them in summer. Also, our unpredictable weather means that crops are a lot more vulnerable. A frost in 2017 severely damaged the British apple crop that year but, conversely, the hot summer of 2018 has seen a lot of varieties thrive.
Are new varieties on the way?
Yes. Growers are trialling new types of apple all the time (the test period is approximately four years, so it’s not a quick process). The aim is to develop apples that respond well to the UK’s climate, have a long season and satisfy what consumers are asking for. This involves introducing varieties from different countries, as well as developing hybrids.
What are the supermarkets doing to help?
During apple season, most supermarkets will run promotions on British apples (look for Union Jack labels). As well as specific varieties, you’ll also find bags of generically labelled apples – such as ‘red dessert apples’. The apples in these bags will vary week to week depending on what’s available, but the supermarket is required to put the particular variety on the label, so you’ll know what you’re eating and can therefore look out for it again if you like it.