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Pressing matters
December 2018 / January 2019

Mysterious mixture: Varieties of apple found growing in a Norfolk garden

Literalists may be disappointed to hear that the apple in the Garden of Eden is no such thing. It takes someone pointing it out to you to realise that the fruit of the tree of knowledge is only ever referred to as that — it’s “the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden” (in the King James version). It’s an apple because the people who made art showing this scene used the default fruit for them, and possibly wanted to pun on the Latin “malum”. Rabbis of the first century AD theorised that the fruit was figs (because of the figleaves Adam and Eve used to clothe themselves) or grapes (meaning that they had got drunk). The various golden apples in Greek mythology are also suspect: I’ve seen someone claim the apples of the Hesperides, which Heracles was tasked with stealing, were the fruit of the argan tree — the Hesperides being, in “reality”, in Morocco, somewhere in the Atlas mountains.

In England “apple” could be used generically, to mean a fruit (as “meat” for “food”) into the 15th century, but the default-ness of apple survives in other ways: as the basis for names of other fruits and vegetables: ardappel, pomme de terre, pomodoro, custard apple. Apples are particularly peculiar because they vary so much — their genetics make apple offspring unpredictable. Seeds found in a delicious eating apple, if they grow to a seedling, are highly likely to produce sour, crab-apple type, semi-inedible fruit. But plenty of well-known varieties come from what are called “chance seedlings”, genetic accidents, not deliberately bred for anything: Granny Smith (famously found growing on a rubbish heap), Red Delicious, Braeburn.  I think this is partly why “golden apples”, which help gods in Norse mythology retain immortality, or cause strife of various sorts for ancient Greeks, recur so much: delicious apple trees in ancient times must have been distributed fairly randomly.

Many people have an apple tree of semi-unknown origin growing in their garden. My parents have several: some are russets of some kind (not Egremont); some are Bramleys (the unmistakeable shiny green skin, the slightly cloud-like shape); some are Cox’s (small, aromatic); and some remain mysterious. The Bramleys were planted in the 1940s — my grandmother remembers it. The others are probably older. The ground underneath these apple trees is rich and soft from years of apples rotting into it. They don’t get fertiliser or spray. So technically they are even organic.

What are our mysterious varieties? Perhaps we will never know. One makes a huge number of stripey, slightly bitter green apples. One produces very delicious large shiny bright red and green apples, which alas are irresistible to the codling moth. The wax on them turns almost oily in storage. In a Germanic fairy tale these would definitely be poisonous. One wizened tree makes tiny, fizzy-tasting dappled red apples the size of cherry plums — is the tree just old, is this a “chance seedling” or is this some weird unfamiliar variety?
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