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Here’s a story with a healthy bite. There are thousands of varieties of apple, but just one that is generally considered to be the cook’s favourite in the UK – the Bramley. Bramley apples are large and green, with a sharp taste that makes them unappetising to eat raw, but flavoursome when cooked, with the added advantage of a firm texture. But how the Bramley got here was a complete accident.
Our tale of the Bramley apple begins about 200 years ago with Mary Ann Brailsford. Young Mary Ann lived with her mother, father and little sister in a cottage in Easthorpe, a tiny village on the edge of Southwell, in Nottinghamshire. One day, sometime around the year 1809, Mary Ann took some pips from an apple her mother was baking in a pie and planted them in a pot. It’s the sort of thing children do, isn’t it? One of the pips grew into a healthy seedling that, eventually, had to be transplanted into the cottage garden. Time passed: Mary Ann’s tree grew; she married in about 1813 and moved out of the family home; her father, Charles, died and her mother, Elizabeth, stayed in the cottage until her death in 1837. Mary Ann appears to have inherited the property, which was bought by a butcher, Matthew Bramley, in 1846. By this time, Mary Ann’s tree was mature and producing fruit.
Enter Henry Merryweather, son of a Southwell nursery owner. He knew his stuff, did our Henry. In 1856, aged just 17, he came across a friend carrying some attractive, large, green apples and, clearly sensing a new branch for the family business, asked where they had come from. So he went to see Mr Bramley and asked if he could take some cuttings from the tree to grow in his father’s nursery. He could have received a tart response, but Mr Bramley agreed – provided the plants were called Bramley’s Seedlings.
The dates and details in the above account vary, depending on your apple sauce.
Moving quickly on, H Merryweather & Son Nursery went on to develop the Bramley, presumably based on good core principles, their first recorded sale being on 31 October 1862, when they sold three apples for two shillings (10p). The Bramley apple is now grown at hundreds of sites in the UK, producing thousands of tonnes of fruit every year. There’s a particular variety that’s been developed in Northern Ireland, the Armagh Bramley, which has protected status and a six-page HM Government product specification, including the following characteristics:
– Large in size (60-120mm diameter);
– Flat sided, ribbed apex, large eye which is part opened;
– Solid green colour with reddish blush;
– Sepals are brown and downy;
– Stalk is short and thick;
– The flesh is white with a tinge of green and is firm and moist;
– Tangy flavour;
– Maintains texture and taste when cooked;
– Robust allowing for longer storability.
Who would have thought that the mother of all Bramleys was grown from an apple pip of unknown variety planted by a little girl more than two centuries ago, pollinated by the right kind of bees, who had visited the right kind of apple blossom along the way, and nurtured in the good soil and temperate climate of the English Midlands. Sadly, Mary Ann died in 1852, ignorant of her contribution to British cooking, fruit growing and bureaucracy. Or perhaps the real heroine was her mother, Elizabeth, who presumably nurtured the tree through adolescence into adulthood. Certainly, Matthew Bramley seems to have had precious little to do with a fruit that should probably have been called the Brailsford.
Of course, you’re itching to know what happened to the original tree. Well, it survived being struck by lightening in the 1900s and was lovingly cared for by a Miss Nancy Harrison until her death, aged 94, in 2014. Nancy lived her whole life in or next door to the Brailsford cottage, making sure the original Bramley apple tree was in her garden, and proudly showing it off to visitors from all over the world. However, the aging fruit tree got into a bit of a stew by developing honey fungus in its later years and will probably be shortly joining the great crumble in the sky, if it hasn’t already succumbed. Scientists from the University of Nottingham used tissue cultures to micro-propagate the tree and create clones of the original Bramley, and these are now growing on the University Campus as well as being sold commercially. There was also a report that Nottingham Trent University hoped to rescue the tree, by buying the cottage and the garden for postgraduate student accommodation. Perhaps it is hoped the students will be motivated to preserve the tree with the prospect of making cheap cider.
Southwell certainly tries to make the most out of its famous fruit – and why not? There are references to Bramley apples all over the place (not least a fabulous window in the Minster) and heritage trails taking in pertinent, as well as possibly less pertinent, spots. There is a Bramley Apple Festival every year, in October. 73 Church Street, where the tree was planted, is about a 10-minute walk from the Minster – the tree is now in the garden of No 75. It’s a private property, there’s nothing to see except a plaque on the wall and the place looked decidedly sad and run-down when we visited. What a pity a local group hasn’t stepped in to restore it to apple-pie order and preserve their heritage.
Apparently, the Bramley apple is not well known outside the UK, though it is available, if you look hard, in North America and Australia. However, the BBC reported the now defunct Bramley Apple Information Service (you couldn’t make it up, could you?) saying that the fruit is ‘revered’ in Japan and that one Japanese apple farmer said he “nearly cried” when he visited Southwell.
Someone needs to write the movie script for this, before anyone else does.