Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pip pip hurray for old Scots apples

Published Date: 23 August 2009
By Jeremy Watson

THEY have colourful names like the Lass o' Gowrie, the Tower of Glamis and the Bloody Ploughman.
Cultivated over centuries on the fertile soils of the Lowlands, Scotland's homegrown apples were at the centre of a thriving industry before their existence was largely forgotten.

Now the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society (RCHS) wants to revive the fortunes of the old Scottish orchards that once numbered tens of thousands of trees.

As part of celebrations of its 200th anniversary, the RCHS is holding a two-day apple "congress" in October to encourage the planting of new orchards.

Experts are being invited to discuss how to reinvigorate planting and consumption of native apple varieties, long lost under a tide of cheaper foreign imports. More than 70 per cent of apples on sale in British shops – a market worth £320 million annually – are now grown abroad and shipped in.

Organiser David Affleck said: "So many apples we buy now are imported while our own indigenous varieties have been allowed to fade away.

"We are holding the apple meeting because we want to encourage the planting of new orchards across Scotland. Not only are our apples wonderful to eat and cook with, orchards are beneficial to the environment and to wildlife, such as insects and birds.

"We use so few Scottish apples these days yet we have varieties that are as good as anywhere in the world."

One of Scotland's premier apple growing areas – dating back 800 years – was the Carse of Gowrie between Perth and Dundee on the north bank of the River Tay.

A Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust survey found that, of 50 recorded orchards, there are now only 17 left and just nine with commercial potential.

Trust manager Paul McLennan said: "Apple growing was a big industry right into the late 19th century, with one estate at Grange having 10,000 trees of which only one remains.

"Apples from Scotland were shipped to many destinations but fell out of favour when refrigeration brought cheaper supplies from elsewhere."

Big-selling modern varieties such as Granny Smith's and Golden Delicious are largely imported. As they grew in popularity, old Scottish varieties fell into decline.

As a result, farmers tore down many orchards to make way for more profitable crops.

However, many varieties survive in gardens. "We are undertaking a varietal survey to find out what we have still got," McLennan said. "I do not think we can ever get back to the old days but we want people to grow and eat their own apples rather than imported varieties they buy in supermarkets."

John Butterworth, who runs Butterworths Organic Nurseries in Ayrshire and specialises in old Scottish apple varieties, said: "It became a question of economics. Some of the old Scots apples don't yield quite as well as more modern varieties or fare quite so well, so as time went on and developments were made, the modern apples grew in popularity.

"But the range of the old varieties is wide – some are cooking apples, some dessert – and the difference in taste is huge, from very sweet through to very sharp. While some have more of a historic value, some of the eating apples are very good."

The RCHS was behind the setting up of an experimental orchard in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1824 where the rock garden is now sited. New varieties from France, Austria, Canada, the US and the best from Scotland were planted. The Society's meal after every quarterly meeting was finished off with sampling the fruit in season.

Then in 1885, the Society held its first apple "congress" to bring together experts to expand Scottish production. The October conference will again be held at the Botanic Garden.

Society president George Anderson said: "We cannot match the 1885 congress in numbers but we will have one of the best apple exhibition events since that time. We will learn more about the importance of apples as a food and orchards to our environment."

Old Scottish varieties cannot, however, compete with claims from Kazakhstan. Scientists from Oxford University announced yesterday that DNA tests have shown all apples originated from a remote Kazakh mountainside, and the seeds were spread by bears.

Six of the best

The James Grieve: A dessert apple with yellow fruit, speckled and striped with orange. Savoury and juicy with a strong acidity.

The Coul Blush: Britain's most northerly apple, hailing from Coul, Ross-shire. Gold with a faint flush and sweet, with a soft, cream flesh. Makes a good sauce.

The Bloody Ploughman: Cultivated in the Carse of Gowrie around 1880. Deep, dark, blood red eating apple with flesh with pink stains. Named after a ploughman who was caught stealing the apples and shot by a gamekeeper.

The Cambusnethan Pippin: Popular for being an "excellent, scab-free dessert apple" from either Clydesdale or Stirling. Tender and juicy with mild acidity.

The Lass O'Gowrie: A sweet, juicy cooker from Perthshire, favoured for keeping its shape.

The White Melrose: Raised at Melrose Abbey before 1831. A large, ribbed, green fruit popular in Tweedside orchards in the 19th century. A sweet and pleasantly sub-acid flavour.

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