Category: The Apple Orchard

| Apples, The Apple Orchard

Long Read: The Forgotten Genius who Discovered the Apple’s Birthplace

When I wrote The Apple Orchard, there were edits. I wanted to give the origin story of the apple, but this was cut from the final book because by the time I’d finished it, The Apple Orchard was the story of my own personal journey of discovery through the English apple year, and this just stuck out in the narrative as something that didn’t belong. It was an important chapter in a book about apples, just not the book about apples that mine had become. I’ve been saving it for a while but as we’re at the start of blossom time, one of the most wonderful times in the apple year, I thought I’d celebrate by publishing this story here as a long read. The Apple Orchard has just been released in paperback and should be available now in all good bookshops, as well as here if you don’t know any good bookshops. I’m going to be talking about the magic and mythology of the apple at Herefordshire’s Big Apple Blossomtime celebrations on Monday 1st May. 

The Heavenly
Mountains

 
Let’s play a quick game of word association. I’ll say a word, and I want you to say the first word that comes into your head in response.
Okay, here goes:
Kazakhstan.
Did you think Borat? If you’re reading this in the second decade of the
twenty-first century, I bet you did. Sacha Baron-Cohen’s fictitious Kazakhjournalist is world-famous. Now let’s try it again, but you need to come up with a different word.
Kazakhstan.
Anything? Anything at all?
Weird isn’t it? Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth-biggest country, at 2.7 million square kilometres, it’s fractionally smaller than Argentina, almost as big as India, and nearly twice as big as the entire European Union. Yet all we know about it is a made-up comedy character. At the start of his book InSearch of Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared, Christopher Robbins challenges a fan of Borat, arguing that no one would dare portray such a negative racial stereotype of Jews, African-Americans or the Welsh. “Well of course not,” replied the puzzled fan, “That’s why he invented a country!”
Robbins goes on to illustrate how Kazakhstan suffers from our ignorance about ‘The ‘Stans,’ that mysterious and chaotic collection of states below Russia:
Was that the country where the president boiled his enemies alive? No, that was thereputation of the Uzbek president south of the border. Was it the place where
the president had golden statues made of himself and placed on revolving platforms to lead the sun? No again, that was next door in Turkmenistan. It was an anarchic, narco-state wasn’t it, embroiled in a permanent civil war? No, that was the fate of poor, blighted Tajikistan.
In fairness, our ignorance is hardly surprising. The Russian Tsars closed the country to outsiders during theirexpansion eastwards, and then it was swallowed by the Soviet Union. It was an incredible trick: the ninth largest country in the world simply  disappeared. And it’s re-emergence since the collapse of the USSR has had a profound impact on our understanding of the apple.
The first westerner to discover the great apple forests of Kazakhstan was Carl Friedrich von Ledebour, a
German-Estonian botanist and professor of science at Tartu University in
Estonia, who also founded its school of botany. The nineteenth century was a
time of scientific classification, of epic, years-long journeys to discover and
catalogue as many different species of everything as we could. Darwin’s
journeys aboard the Beagle may be the most famous of these voyages, because the
diversity he saw inspired his theory of natural selection, but he was only one
of many undertaking similar expeditions. Von Ledebour took a particular
interest in the flora of the Russian Empire, and became the first person to
catalogue it comprehensively. Within this study, he identified for the first
time a species he called Pyrus sieversii,
better known to us know as Malus
Sieversii
, the wild apple of Central Asia. He discovered these apples in
the Tien Shan, or Heavenly Mountains, tucked in the south-western corner of
Kazakhstan.
In 1854 the Russians built a fort
called Verniy (‘loyal’ in Russian) in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains,
to protect this far-flung corner of their empire. The fort grew, taking in
Russian peasants and Kazakh nomads who had been driven from their traditional
lands, and by the early 20th century it was a thriving city. In 1921
the residents voted to change the name of their city to Alma-Ata, which means
‘Father of Apples’, and in 1929 the city became the capital of Kazakhstan.
That same year, Alma-Ata received a
distinguished visitor. Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov was a botanist,
geneticist, agronomist and geographer, a brilliant scientist, hailed by some
who knew him as a genius. Having grown up in a poor rural village that was perpetually
hit by crop failures and food rationing, he was obsessed by food security and
the prevention of famine both at home in Russia and around the world. He
believed that the best way to understand plants and the potential for their
cultivation was to establish their original source in the world, and developed
an over-simplistic but not entirely inaccurate theory that the likely origin of
a species of plant was the place where today it shows the greatest genetic
diversity. Effectively, such places were nature’s laboratories, where different
permutations were worked through until the best ones were developed. Vavilov
travelled the world collecting thousands of seeds, and established the world’s
largest seed bank in Leningrad.
In 1929 he was travelling by mule
train across Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, attempting to reach western China via a
mountain pass. ‘The path turned out to be more difficult than we expected, and,
in fact, we lost two of the horses,’ he wrote later. ‘But somehow we reached
the northern slopes of the range where we found a road leading directly to
Alma-Ata.’
What he found there astounded him.
In Five Continents, the book that set
out his theory of plant origins, he wrote:
Thickets of
wild apples stretch out through an extensive area around the city and along the
slopes of the mountains, here and there forming a real forest. In contrast to
the small, wild apples of the Caucasus, the wild apples of Kazakhstan are
represented mainly by large-fruited varieties, not differing much from cultivated
species. It was the first of September and the time when the apple ripen. We
could see with our own eyes that here we were in a remarkable centre of origin
of apples, where cultivated forms did not rank noticeably above wild ones and
where it was difficult to distinguish wild apples from those cultivated. Some
of the forms in this forest were so good in respect to quality and dimensions
that they could be directly grown in a garden…
The slopes of the Tien Shan were,
he believed, a ‘living laboratory where one can see the evolutionary process
unfolding before one’s eyes.’
Five
Continents
was the most important book on plant origins ever published up
to that point. It had the potential to radically improve our understanding and
cultivation of important pants. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the world
forgot all about Vavilov and his sensational discoveries, just as it forgot
about Kazakhstan.
Vavilov’s problem was that he
believed science should be kept separate from politics. That may sound perfectly
reasonable, but Joseph Stalin, who came to power in 1924, disagreed. Around the
same time, Vavilov befriended an ambitious young scientist called Trofim
Lysenko. Eleven years younger than Vavilov, Lysenko was a peasant by background
who had gained his degree from a correspondence course. When he met Isai
Prezent, a political ideologue, their fusion of politics and science began to
find favour within the Soviet hierarchy.
By this point, the science of plant
genetics was well understood. Gregor Mendel’s work in the mid- to late
nineteenth century had established the basic principle of genetic inheritance.
Controversial at the time, it was rediscovered and elaborated upon in the 1900s
by a number of scientists, including British biologist William Bateson, with
whom Vavilov had spent time studying plant immunity.
Bateson was the first person to use
the term ‘genetics’ to describe the study of heredity, and was the main
champion of Mendel’s ideas once they had been rediscovered. So it came as a
shock when Lysenko, who Vavilov had once regarded as his protégé, rejected the
entire basis of Mendelian genetics. Lysenko falsely claimed to have invented
the process of ‘vernalisation’, where wheat varieties normally sown in winter
could be made to behave like those sown in spring. In reality the procedure had
been familiar to farmers since the early 1800s, but Lysenko made grossly
exaggerated claims about its efficiency. He also claimed that by changing the
conditions a plant was experiencing, you didn’t just change its behaviour; you
were creating a new species of plant, one which would pass on its new
characteristics to its offspring. In this way, grain that could only grow in
warm climates could be made to grow in cold climates too, and the Soviet food
supply could be guaranteed.
All this was rubbish of course. It
was little more than a rehash of Lamarckism, the idea that an organism can pass
on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring, which
had been destroyed by Darwinism. But in Soviet Russia, it was heralded as a new
‘Soviet genetics’, and Lysenko became the most influential scientists in the
USSR. Until the 1930s Russia had been a world leader in the advancement of
genetics. Now Lysenko dismissed mainstream genetics as ‘harmful nonsense.’
Stalin began working on a five-year plan to enforce the collectivisation of all
farms, applying Lysenko’s principles. Lysenko began praising his master in
speeches as ‘The Great Gardener.’
Vavilov shook his head in
disbelief, asking, “Is this some kind of religion?” If religion and science are
related in the ways they seek to understand and explain the world, this was a
cult masked as science. With no scientific proof, it was all about faith. It
appealed to Stalin’s sense that the Soviet machine could improve everything,
even breeding undesirable traits out of people. By 1940 Lysenko had
successfully eradicated any mention of the great 19th century
geneticists from school textbooks.
When the collectivisation
experiment inevitably failed, cognitive dissonance ruled the day. The problem
couldn’t possibly be Comrade Lysenko’s crackpot theories – someone must have
sabotaged the great experiment. Between 1934 and 1940, eighteen of Vavilov’s
colleagues were arrested, and almost every serious agricultural publishing
outlet was closed. Vavilov’s remaining colleagues, worried for their safety,
began to disown him. His research was cut and he was barred from travelling.
Finally, in 1940 Vavilov himself
was arrested and charged with being an anti-Soviet spy who had sabotaged crop
production. After days of 13-hour interrogations, he cracked and confessed to
trumped-up charges of wasting state funds, deliberately creating a shortage of
seeds and disrupting the rotation of crops. He was even accused of ‘damaging
the landing grounds in the Leningrad military region by sowing the airport with
weeds.’
Vavilov was sentenced to death,
which was later commuted to twenty years imprisonment. He died in a hard labour
camp in 1943.
By that time Leningrad had been
under siege for two years by the Nazis. Stalin had rescued the art from the
Hermitage ‘for the future enjoyment of all people,’ but he ignored Vavilov’s
seed collection at the Institute of Applied Botany and New Crops. Vavilov’s
remaining colleagues preserved large parts of the seed collection by hiding it
in the cellars, keeping it intact, refusing to eat the seeds even though nine
of them starved to death by the time the siege was lifted in 1944. Their
incredible bravery was for nothing: after the war the collection fell into
Lysenko’s hands, who allowed it to be ruined by the cross-breeding and
outbreeding of different strains.
Through the middle of the twentieth
century, advances in our understanding of plant genetics allowed food
production to soar around the world. When followers of Thomas Malthus predicted
that a rising population would result in global starvation by the 1970s, this
didn’t happen because the yields from fields and orchards rose faster than the
population did. In the USSR, until Lysenko’s demise in 1954, agriculture went
backwards. By the time of his death the Soviet Union was fifty years behind the
rest of the world in agricultural practice – surely a factor in its eventual
demise.
*
In 1929, when Nikolai Vavilov made
it into Alma-Ata after losing two of his horses, the residents tried to help
him by supplying more. As it happened, Vavilov declined their offer because a
colleague was on the way with motorised transport. But for Aimak Dzangaliev, a
fifteen year-old boy charged with looking after Vavilov’s fresh horses, the brief
encounter with Vavilov would change his life – and perhaps the future of the
apple.
Dzangaliev was amazed that an
eminent scientist from Leningrad would come all the way to Alma-Aty to look at its
apples. Seeing them through Vavilov’s eyes inspired Dzangaliev to study them
himself. After going to study with Vavilov in Leningrad, he returned to
Alma-Aty to continue the work Vavilov had started. He spent the next sixty
years with his wife, Tatiana Salova, cataloguing and researching Kazakhstan’s
fauna. They discovered that of 6000 species, at least 157 were either direct
precursors or close wild relatives of domesticated crops. They found that 90
per cent of all cultivated fruits in the world’s temperate zones had wild
relatives or ancestors historically found in Kazakhstan’s forests, in their
eyes confirming Vavilov’s by now forgotten theory that this was the birthplace
of the apple. They catalogued more than 56 native forms of apples, 26 of which
looked like purely wild ecotypes, with another 30 being natural or
semi-domesticated hybrids.
There was just one problem for
Dzangaliev: his beloved forests were disappearing. Since 1960 between 70 and 80
per cent of Alma-Aty’s wild forests have been lost to luxury apartments and
hotels, holiday chalets and summer cabins.
When the Soviet Empire collapsed,
Dzangaliev, now in his eighties, contacted plant scientists in the United
States and begged them to come and help save his apples. Phillip Forsline, a
horticulturalist at the Plant Genetic Resources Unit in Geneva, New York, led a
number of expeditions in the 1990s and was amazed by what he saw.
Apples don’t grow in apple tree
forests. They grow here and there, wherever the seeds fall. That’s why an
orchard looks so stunning: it’s something you don’t see in nature, the product
of human co-dependence with nature to produce something neither can on their
own. Unless, that is, you’re in the Tien Shan mountains. Dzangaliev welcomed
Forsline with a firm handshake and an astonishing passion and energy for a man
in his eighties. (He credited his health and longevity to a constant diet of
wild apples, eating at least one every day.) He led Forsline into Tien Shan’s
apple trees forests, and showed him dense clusters of trees that were 300 years
old, fifty feet tall with trunks as wide as oaks, still producing healthy crops
of apples. The variety of those apples was astonishing: dun russet and shiny
smooth, marble-sized and melon-sized, reds, greens, pinks, purples, yellows and
gold. Some of the wild varieties had grown as big as domesticated apples in the
west. From the samples they took, Forsline and his team estimated that the
apples in the rest of the world together contained no more than 20 per cent of
the genetic diversity on show in the Kazakh forests. Somewhere in that gene
pool may lie resistance to blight, scab, or pests which can be bred into our
favourite apple varieties, or even possibilities for the apple that we haven’t
yet thought to explore. At a time when ever-fewer commercial varieties are
cultivated widely, becoming less resistant to disease thanks to their
intensively monocultural breeding, the birthplace of the apple may well contain
its future.
In the early twenty-first century,
a series of researchers used molecular genetic markers capable of
distinguishing between species to establish that what Vavilov had deduced from
observation was correct: the domesticated apples cultivated across the Western
world had so much in common genetically with the wild apples of the Tien Shan
mountains that they were without doubt descended from there.
But why here? How can one spot produce
so much genetic diversity? Barrie Juniper, a plant scientist from the
University of Oxford and the first person to confirm Vavilov’s hypothesis on
the origins of the apple, has a pretty good idea. Around ten million years ago,
earthquakes and shifting tectonic plates began to create the mountain ranges of
Inner and Central Asia. At this time, an early form of the apple became trapped
on the rising land. The Tien Shan never glaciated during the Ice Ages, and was fed
by a constant supply of water from the snow pack above. Glaciers on one side
and emerging deserts on the other cut the region off from Europe and the rest
of Asia, but in this lost, fertile valley, plants and animals interacted and
cross-bred. As well as apples, the Tien Shan region is also remarkable for its
diversity and concentration of walnuts, peaches and a whole array of fruit and
nut varieties.
I never got to make the journey to
Kazakhstan mysslf, but I consoled myself by reading the many accounts written
by scientists who have been. Every one of them is filled with awe and wonder at
these forests, even in their diminished state. It’s hardly surprising – in fact
probably inevitable – that when he first saw the apple forests, Phillip
Forsline declared that they had found ‘the real Garden of Eden located in the
Kazakh mountains.’

 

| Books, Food, Miracle Brew, The Apple Orchard, Writing

New Book News: not for the first time, I’m trying to copy the great Iain Banks…

One of the greatest British novelists of the last fifty years, the late Iain Banks developed parallel tracks in his book publishing. Irritatingly and wonderfully prolific, he’d a write ‘mainstream’ fiction‘Iain Banks’ book one year followed by an ‘Iain M Banks’ book set in his stunningly detailed and intricate sci-fi universe the next. While my books obviously won’t be as anywhere near as good as his, and while they’re resolutely non-fiction (at least for the time being) I’m hoping to adopt a similar method…

As I’ve written before, I was extremely lucky to find in Pan Macmillan a mainstream, large scale, award-winning publisher who was willing to pay me to write several books about beer and promote them to a broad, general audience. I was in the right place at exactly the right time.

After three books that sold perfectly well but didn’t trouble any bestseller lists, Pan Mac asked me to adapt my style to broader subjects and themes. My agent agreed, and it sounded like a good idea to me too. My fourth book, Shakespeare’s Local, was a first step away from beer to broader social history. It was my most successful book launch at that point, and everyone felt they were right to gently encourage me to move further away from beer.

Since then, I’ve written books about cider and apples and pubs. But I missed beer writing, and I felt like an idiot that in the midst of a craft beer boom like nothing we’ve ever seen, I was moving away from the subject I loved.

So at the same time as writing The Apple Orchard – my last book, which is out in paperback next month – I joined up with innovative crowdfunding publisher Unbound to write a new beer book. I screwed up the timings quite badly, and ended up trying to write three books at the same time, but now I’m through the pain. The Apple Orchard did really well. (After long conversations with Pan Mac about it, we amicably parted ways and it was published by Penguin.)

Exploring nature and the rhythms of the year, I discovered a new lyricism in my writing that’s not always been there in the beer writing. So I want to do more along that line, at the same time as not giving up on beer. I want to have my cake and eat it (or should that be ‘I want to have my pint and drink it’?)

So: the Apple Orchard paperback is out on 6th April. I just got sent the paperback cover today, a subtle evolution of the hardback design, which I think is lovely:

 

And then, 1st June sees the launch of Miracle Brew, my first beer book in eight years, via Unbound:

 

I’m currently checking the page proofs of Miracle Brew for any last typos or errors, and realising that writing about other stuff in between – particularly apples – has definitely brought something extra to a book about hops, barley, yeast and water. I’m really excited to start sharing it with people. (Even though the book is fully funded, you still have a short time left to pledge here and get your name in the back and get other benefits. Or if you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, you can pre-order it on Amazon here just like any other book.)

Books take a long time to write, and I’ve always struggled to get the period between books to shrink. But now I’m on a bit of a roll. So while this year will see me on the road promoting the Apple Orchard paperback and the new hardback of Miracle Brew, today I signed the contract on my next book, which should see the light of day in autumn 2018!

This one is with Penguin again, the follow-up to The Apple Orchard. I had two ways to go from that book: I could develop the whole nature writing theme more, or I could continue to expand from beer into a broader food and drink arena. While there are lots of very good writers in both disciplines, I felt nature was the more overcrowded, and food and drink the one I was more excited about.

So I pitched an idea in January, and it was approved and bought quicker than any book I’ve written to date. The roots of it go back at least seven years, when, touring Hops & Glory, I started getting invited to a lot more food festivals and events. And it’s based around the notion that food and drink form a large part of how we see ourselves – and in Britain’s case, point to a very confused and uncertain self-image.

It’s a global joke that British food is a bit crap – and Brits are at least as likely to say that as anyone else. When British people do stick up for their food, they usually point out that we have restaurants representing more different international cuisines in cities like London than anywhere else, or that British chefs are modernising and doing fusion with pan-Asian cuisine or ‘modern European.’ If they do celebrate traditional British dishes, they invariably add a cosmopolitan ‘twist’, just so everyone can be sure they’d never do anything as vulgar as simply make a traditional dish really well.

There are exceptions to this of course, but the general theme I pick up is that no one is that keen on celebrating traditional British food and drink. It’s why British craft beer fans will denigrate cask ale and British brewers would rather use American hops. Its why Somerset farmhouse cider is laughed at by people who adore Belgian lambic, when it’s almost the same drink in many ways. Its why a craft beer festival that is passionate about showcasing local brewers will have endless food stalls doing mac ‘n’ cheese, Texan barbecue and hot dogs, but not British street food such as pie and peas. It’s why France has more cheeses protected under the European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) schemes than Britain does for all its food and drink put together, and why the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) still has absolutely no clue whatsoever about how it’s going to protect Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton cheese, Herefordshire perry and the rest of Britain’s protected produce once Brexit means they no longer qualify for the EU protections they currently enjoy.

And yet, when surveys ask people what their favourite meals are, the vast majority invariably come up with fish and chips, full English (or Welsh, or Scottish, or Northern Irish) breakfast, and Sunday Roast. In terms of consumption, this isn’t true of course: most of us eat Italian, or Chinese, or burgers way more often than we eat these staples. Large swathes of the population are far more likely to go to a faux-Italian coffee chain and have pain-aux-chocolats or croissants, or more recently, the heavily Americanised concept of brunch, than go for a full English. But when asked, these are the meals, along with Devon cream teas, cheese sarnies and bacon butties, that we still feel some patriotic pride about.

This brings up the whole issue of multiculturalism – curry has famously become defined as a British dish. But go back far enough, and what is British and what is multicultural start to blur. The first curry restaurant in Britain opened in 1809, only 15 years or so after it became socially acceptable for image-conscious Brits to eat potatoes.

To tie all these thoughts and themes together, I’m going to eat seven of Britain’s favourite meals in their ideal settings: full English in a greasy spoon, fish and chips by the seaside, Sunday Roast in a country pub, and so on. For each meal, I’ll explore its origins and history, why it became so important to us, and what it tells us about how we see ourselves and our place in the world in 2017. I’m starting work on it with a fascinating new reading list:

With this as-yet-untitled book due out in 2018, this establishes the beginnings of a pattern of annually alternating beer books and books with broader themes. I won’t go as far as differentiating them by calling myself Pete Brown in one strand and Peter S Brown in the other, but I hope it’s a pattern I’ll be able to continue for a few years – I have a very tentative conversation next week about a possible new beer book.

I hope at least one of these strands will continue to interest you. Thanks for reading.

| Apples, Books, Radio, The Apple Orchard, Writing

Book of the Week

The Apple Orchard – coming to a radio near you…

I’m enormously proud, and more than a little nervous, that this morning BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting the first episode of the serialisation of my new book, The Apple Orchard. 
My last narrative book, Shakespeare’s Local, was also Book of the Week, so I guess lightning can strike twice. It’s an enormous honour to be chosen. Shakespeare’s Local was read out by Tony ‘Baldrick’ Robinson, who made my words sound about 100 times funnier and more interesting than they read on the page. To follow that up, the producers decided they would like The Apple Orchard to be read by… me.
I can talk on radio just fine, but reading out something scripted is an entirely different skill, one I learned quickly in a studio in Glasgow three weeks ago. You can hear the results at 9.45am each day this week, Monday to Thursday.
There are many different strands to The Apple Orchard. Most people who know me keep referring to it as my ‘cider book’, and I have to stop myself referring to it in that way still. There’s a lot of cider drunk in the book, and cider production is addressed in detail towards the end, but it’s mainly about the cycle of the apple year, the history and nature of apple cultivation, and the symbolism and significance of this fruit in our lives, what it tells us about systems of belief and how we make sense of the world.
That’s an awful lot to fit into four fifteen minute broadcasts, so the abridger at Radio 4 had to choose one thread to follow. He chose to focus on the cycle of the apple year and what needs to be done in the orchard at various times. So this week, you can hear about the origins of the apple and how it came to England, how I learn to prune and graft apple trees, and the joy of apple harvest. I think of it as a ‘remix’ of the book, with different elements shuffled around to create something new, simpler and leaner.
This seemingly ordinary fruit is in fact one of the most potent symbols in our lives. It was a life-changing joy to unravel its story.
If you’re not near a radio at 9.45am, you can catch up on iPlayer by following the link in the screen grab above. The Apple Orchard will be available for about 30 days.
I‘ve been asked a lot if all this means I don’t write about beer any more. I can assure you that I do. I’m doing the final edits to my new beer book this week, which will be available spring 2017. After I’ve finished that, I’ll be blogging all the stuff about beer I didn’t have time to address while I was working on these books. I’m also writing regularly for the Morning Advertiser, Original Gravity and Ferment magazines. 

| Apples, Books, Cider, Orchards, The Apple Orchard

Apple Porn

The simple pleasures of tramping round an orchard.

Autumn is a season of two halves. Both are definitely autumn, but one is summer’s older sibling, looking back fondly, while the other is winter’s harbinger. The change comes almost overnight some time late in October, just before the clocks go back. By this time we’ve all been remarking for several weeks that the nights are drawing in and it’s getting a bit chilly, but then, around the 21st – which is, coincidentally (or not) now celebrated as Apple Day – the season finally shifts its weight to the other foot.

Before the change it’s all about crisp blue skies with a chill at the edge, the leaves turning and sweaters coming out of the wardrobe. After, it’s mud, rain, bare branches and those recently beautiful golds and yellows and browns clogging the drains and flying in your face. In short, Autumn Part One is a time to be outside. Part Two is the bit where you rediscover the joys of open fires, home baking and soup.

Every year, it’s a panicked rush to make sure I enjoy Autumn Part One as much as I can. It’s a very busy time of year with festivals, events and trade shows, and from early September to mid-October I’m invariably living out of suitcase most of the time. So when Thatcher’s Cider invited me down to Somerset for a walk in their orchards – with no other agenda than simply catching up with each other – I jumped at the chance.

Thatcher’s has grown at an incredible rate in the last few years. Many locals still remember when it was a small cider farm, but now it’s a national brand. Thatcher’s Gold is pretty much a mainstream cider now, dismissed by purists but superior to the likes of Magner’s, from which it seems to be soaking up a lot business. It doesn’t appeal to me personally, but there are other ciders within the Thatcher’s range that do, particularly the crisp, satisfying oak aged Vintage. The new special vintage blends of apple varieties, such as Tremletts and Falstaff, are also really interesting.

But for me, the most exciting thing Thatchers has done recently is to create a periodic table of the apples they use.

 

I can’t really post a big enough picture of it here to do it justice, though you should hopefully be able to enlarge it.

Apart from it being ridiculously clear and informative, and fascinating if you’re an apple nerd like me, this is what the whole cider industry needs to be looking at. Good cider is made from apples. Obvious I know, but bad cider is made from cheap, imported apple concentrate of indeterminate origin.

Different apples have different characteristics, just like different grapes or hops. Wine became popular in the UK when people began to discover their favourite grape varieties. Craft beer exploded when people started to learn about different hops. It really doesn’t take a genius to see apple varieties as the key building block for a stable, established premium quality cider market.

Martin Thatcher is genuinely fascinated by apples, after having spent his whole life around them. Walking around the massively expanded cider production facility at Myrtle Farm in the village of Sandford, he points to the house where he was born. “I’ve moved house six times in my life,” he says, “And I think they’re all within about 600 yards of each other.”

Between these houses there are over 500 acres of orchards.

Martin is currently experimenting with the effects of terroir. He’s planting stands of the same apple varieties in different types of soil and monitoring the results, and is convinced the fruit will show significant differences.

You can see where this hunch comes from down in the Exhibition Orchard.

Here there are 458 different cider apple varieties. When the Long Ashton Research Station’s Pomology and Plant Breeding programme was disbanded in 1981, Martin’s father John took cuttings from as many different trees as he could and grafted them onto rootstock in his own orchard. It’s just as well he did: the Long Ashton orchards were bulldozed soon afterwards, and a library of old cider varieties could have been lost for ever.

Walking around the Exhibition Orchard in a brief but wonderful interval of clear blue skies, I’m compelled to take photos like some kind of apple ticker. My cider comrade Bill Bradshaw always says that when he was commissioned for a photography project about apples and cider making, he found he couldn’t stop afterwards. I now see why. He’s a professional photographer. I’m a bloke who can just about work out how to point a smartphone in the right direction. But the apple demands to be captured and recorded. It’s the centre of still-life art. The artists who create Pomonas – the visual guides to apple varieties – obsess over capturing their beauty far more than they need to for simple identification purposes.

 

At various points, Martin stops and points to groups of trees bursting with life and fruit, and to others next to them, small and wizened, like the last kids to get picked when a school games lesson splits into two football teams. “These were planted at the same time, in the same soil, and given exactly the same watering, pruning and spraying regime,” says Martin. “Look at the difference.”

 

If you’re a grower, that’s fascinating. But if you’re a lucky tourist in the orchard at harvest time, you have eyes only for those that have decided this particular soil type, this precise elevation and position,  is just right, and have shown their gratitude in the best way they know.

My new book The Apple Orchard is out now. This week’s BBC Radio 4 Food Programme is about the book, and is broadcast for the first time on Sunday 9th October at 12.32pm.

| Apples, Orchards, The Apple Orchard, Writing

Say hello to The Apple Orchard

Part two of my Year of Writing Dangerously…*

Today my seventh book, The Apple Orchard, hits the shelves (hopefully. Please God let it hit at least some shelves.)

When I wrote World’s Best Cider in 2013 with Bill, that book required the short, sharp, snappy sections typical of the guide book: 60 words on a cider here, 500 words on that cider maker there, 1000 words on the history, and so on. My books are normally long-form narrative, and I found much of my best writing was on the cutting room floor, so to speak, because it didn’t really belong in the cider book.

More importantly, the best stuff – or rather, the stuff that interested me the most at any rate – wasn’t about cider at all, but about apples, the people who grow them, the places they’re grown, and especially the history and mythology around them. Once we finished researching the cider book, I found myself missing orchards, and desperate to find a way to spend more time in them.

 

So I decided to write about apples themselves. Not just cider apples, but eating apples and dessert apples too.

 

I wanted to trace the history of what we believe to be a quintessentially English fruit through both our real and imagined past. Because I quickly  realised that the apple is the the most symbolically laden of any fruit – indeed of any food. Across many different mythologies and religions, in popular culture and phraseology, the apple dominates. And it does so out of all proportion to its actual importance to our diet. Sure, we eat a lot of apples, but if symbolic importance was proportionate to dietary importance, the Beatles would have released their records on the Wheat label, and New York would be affectionately known as The Big Loaf.

 

I lost the whole summer of 2014 to the seemingly simple question of whether the Forbidden Fruit in the Bible was an apple or not. Genesis never specifies what the fruit was, but the Western World has believed it to be an apple since the Middle Ages.

Pieter Paul Rubens’ depiction of Eden and the Forbidden Fruit

And yet when Michelangelo painted the roof of the Sistine Chapel, he clearly depicted it as a fig.

Michelangelo’s Forbidden… er, Fig

This could have been a whole book in itself – I read many on the subject. And they brought me, via the Middle East, South America, The Himalayas, the North Pole, the Happy Isles and the Moon, back round to the birth of modern horticulture.

 

I decided to follow the apple through the course of a year. It has its big showtimes at blossom in May and harvest in October, but as with anything in horticulture and agriculture, apple growing is a year-round activity.

 

I learned how to graft and prune fruit trees. I picked apples in an orchard on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor, beneath which King Arthur sleeps, immortal thanks to the magical apples of Avalon.

 

I also discovered, on my very first orchard visit with Bill, that I’ve developed a very serious allergy to eating apples. Thankfully whatever is causing the problem is left behind in the solid, or ‘pomace,’ when apples are pressed, because I can drink cider, and also, happily I discovered I can drink fresh apple juice. There are 4000 named varieties of apple cultivated in Britain, and a tasting of single variety juices revealed to me the astonishing array of flavours they possess.

 

The book ranges from myth to genetic modification, from wassail to the economics of the modern apple growing industry through meditations on soil. It’s a personal journey though the subject rather than an exhaustive history, but that’s what my new editor at Penguin felt the book needed to be. We cut a lot of stuff out about mythology and history and how this supposedly English fruit was originally born in Kazakhstan, because the book would have been rambling and unfocused and 500 pages long if we’d left it in. But my journey through orchards still gives chance to touch on all these points.

 

I wrote some more about all this stuff in a piece for the Daily Telegraph’s weekend section last week. I’m going to be doing as many events as I can to promote the book though the autumn – another excuse to get back into orchards and near trees. (Now, I have a physical response to entering an orchard. I can feel my heart rate slow, my breathing deepen, my mind settle.)

I’m delighted to be recording an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme about the book next week, which is provisionally slated for broadcast on Sunday 9th October. (More details to follow when confirmed.) And I’m doubly delighted that BBC Radio 4 have also picked up The Apple Orchard as Book of the Week, to be read out every morning w/c 5th December.

I’m nervous about this, my first book that has no link at all to beer or pubs (although cider is made and consumed in the later chapters). I hope that even if you’ve never really thought that much about apples – as I hadn’t until I first entered an orchard with a notebook in my hand – you’ll find this fascinating and diverting. The apple is a complicated, mysterious treasure hiding in plain sight and trying to look boring, and its history shines a different light on the history of humanity, and what we believe in.

 

The photos in this blog were taken by me primarily as aides memoire while I was writing. the book is not illustrated.
* The first of the three books I very stupidly signed up to write simultaneously was The Pub: A Cultural Institution, which was published in mid-August 2016. The third and final book is my journey through the nature of beer – an exploration of hops, barley, yeast and water. I submitted a complete first draft of this to my publisher two weeks ago. This is the one through Unbound, which uses rewards-based crowdfunding to cover publication costs before publishing books in the usual manner. The book is due out in May/June 2017, but subscribers will get their copes as soon as it’s back from the printers, which will probably be a couple of months earlier. Even though the book is fully funded, if you want to get a copy of it before publication as well as other rewards, you can still subscribe here.