Sunday, August 31, 2014
Walking through my local orchard, I noticed that the rows of heavily laden Discovery and Cox’s Orange Pippin apple trees were interspersed with the odd Russet tree. Distinctive for their leathery brown skin, they stood out, not just for their appearance, but for their infrequency. Growing odd cultivars from the same flowering group amongst the main crop ensures good pollination and a better yield. Being my favourite apple for its nutty aroma and sweet white flesh, I scavenged a few windfalls even though they were not yet quite ripe.
When I asked the fruit farmer why he does not grow more Russets, he said that at Farmers’ Markets they are popular, but the supermarkets will not buy them from him. The average shopper has become so conditioned to the idea of a shiny rosy apple that they baulk when confronted with a dun-coloured fruit with a matt finish.
The alienation of the Russet is not confined to its fruit. When I arrived at the fag end of a fruit tree sale at a local nursery recently, there were only two apple varieties remaining – a Laxton and a Herefordshire Russet. Even my own kids, who I thought were free of aesthetic prejudices when it came to food, pleaded with me not to buy the tree with “the brown apples”. The thing is, they had eaten peeled Russets as toddlers and loved their sugary taste. So I ignored their sensibilities and bought the Russets. If they were good enough for Shakespeare ("there's a dish of leather-coats for you" - Henry IV) and the Victorians, who knew them as the best tasting apple, they should still be good enough today.