“What an apple, what suavity of aroma. Its initial Madeira-like mellowness of flavour overlies a deeper honeyed nuttiness, crisply sweet not sugar sweet, but the succulence of a well devilled marrow bone. Surely no apple of greater distinction or more perfect balance can ever have been raised anywhere on earth.” Art critic and pomologist Philip Morton Shand (right), BBC Radio 1944.
“Outright winner was Ashmead’s Kernel, so good we almost eliminated it from the competition as it was not fair on the others. This is an intensely aromatic apple, with a pleasing balance of sweetness and acidity. Crisp and juicy. It is a late season apple that stores very well.” Gloucester Apple Trust – tasting notes 2005.
“Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again…” Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie
This autumn ten of the 25 apple trees I planted six years ago have finally borne worthwhile fruit. I had to look up my planting notes to work out which ones they were. Five of the trees were Ashmead Kernel. They were absolutely laden with very large almost khaki-coloured fruit. Some of the branches were bent down almost to the ground with the weight. Closer up you can see the colour is green underneath but overladen by the furry “russet” coat, which is a sort of light brown in colour.
I picked them all. Most have been pressed into apple juice – which is particularly flavoursome – and are now in the freezer in plastic bottles. But I still have a tray in the cellar because they are meant to keep into February. They are both acid and sweet at the same time, as the tasting quotes above show. The four pictured above I’ve just brought up from the cellar. The boys gobble them up very fast.
They are called Ashmead after the Gloucester worthy who first grew them in his garden in what is now Clarence Street, Gloucester in about 1700. Sadly the original tree was destroyed when a new road was built through the garden in the nineteenth century. The site of his garden is now taken up by this unlovely Primark outlet.
Luckily, a local nurseryman name of Wheeler propagated the apple for sale in about 1766 and it became locally successful ie in West Gloucestershire. It is seen now as one of the finest products of Gloucestershire, so could quite likely have contributed to Laurie Lee’s drink of golden fire, quoted above from his novel Cider With Rosie.
Despite Morton Shand’s wartime fervour for its taste, according to some info I found from a community orchard outside Bristol, it did not come to national notice until the 1960s when it showed well in blind testing conducted by East Malling Research Station. It finally gained acceptance when, in 1981, it was awarded a First Class Certificate by the Royal Horticultural Society – after nearly 300 years.
If you surf the web, rather pleasingly, there are quite a few American bloggers talking about how much they like it, but how difficult it is to grow, including one poor chap who only managed to find a couple of apples in a very special supermarket when they were past their best in December. He had to nibble the top and bottom bits (near the poles) to get the “acid drop” taste, which had seeped away during storage nearer the apple’s equator.
I knew none of this when I bought the saplings from a nursery six years ago. I chose the trees based on what was available (the nursery had run out of many of its varieties and generally takes bookings a year ahead) that fruited late and kept well and were reasonably disease free. So I’m feeling quite smug about my choice.
A few of my Ashmead Kernel apples have got a mild case of “bitter pit” which is thought to be brought about by lack of nutrients but with my apples it is not severe enough to affect the flavour.
The whole idea of planting late fruiting varieties was to have enough apples to keep in the cellar and last us through winter, so we’ll see how they last.
They are there in the musty gloom alongside about seven trays full of Claygate Pearmain, the other five of my planted trees that did really well this year.
Here are some of the Claygate Pearmains.
Like the Ashmeads, they are covered in russet but they have a rosier tint on the side where the sun reached them, this segues first into orange, then yellow and then green as you travel around the apple’s equator. But the whole skin is suffused with greeny freckles.
The flesh is softer in the Claygate and it does not have Ashmead’s sharpness, but they’re still nice.
Claygates also have a back story. They were discovered in a hedge in the village of Claygate, in Surrey by Claygate resident John Braddick in 1821.
The Claygate trees have this year been even more prolific than the Ashmead. But strangely, one of the five trees produced a mass of smaller apples and hardly any full sized ones. I tried to thin out the baby apples in mid summer but that tree may either have been more attractive to bees for some reason and so set more fruit or it may have been one that I missed.
Here are some tasting notes on Claygates from the Orange Pippin website
“After a month in cold storage, the tropical fruit flavour develops into one of the most deliciously complex apples I’ve ever tasted. I would rank this in my top five desert varieties. A shame it is not widely grown in USA.”
“A very superior apple. Flavour is incredibly complex if picked when ripe and stored for a week or two. There are definite pineapple notes on offer. So far, this is the best apple I have ever tasted.”
It’s such a joy and privilege to be keeping alive these historic discoveries. And they are discoveries. Each of the hundreds of English apple varieties represent a little fortutious accident of nature, not deliberate breeding. Apples can not be “bred” like many domestic plants and animals. The pips do not grow true – they do not grow up into the same variety of apple they came from. The blossom on the tree is fertilised by pollen from another variety. The tree produces a predictable apple variety, but no one can predict what genes the seed inside the apple contains.
Often people’s carefully planted and long-tended pip grows into a tree that does not even produce apples. Johnny Appleseed, despite his name, and what I was told at school, did not go around America scattering pips. He planted nurseries, with the aim of selling trees, not orchards for selling apples.
So it is up to nature to produce new varieties. When an apple arrives that happens to be tasty to us humans, it is our role to discover it, whether it is in a hedge, like Claygate Pearmain, or in someone’s garden. And then we have to propagate that plant, from cuttings, not from pips.
As you saw, Ashmead’s Gloucester garden is now a store selling cut-price imported clothing and it is unlikely that any of the commuters living in Claygate would have the time or inclination to scan their local hedgerows for new varieties of apples today. So we can only keep on propagating the discoveries of our vigilant ancestors.