The first orchard I saw – and as it was of orange trees it was properly called a grove, not an orchard – was on a school trip to Spain. I was taken completely by surprise, as if I’d never really fully understood that fruit grew on trees until that moment. An orange grove is especially beautiful: bright orbs with emerald-green leaves.
But all fruit trees – simultaneously offering and holding on to their fruit as if to protect it – are special. Nothing looks more giving; no field of swaying wheat or rows of gently unfurling cabbages. Fruit trees are adorned, playful, sensual, come hither. They pulse with life.
I have one apple tree in my garden – it’s a small garden and I am not green-fingered – but the thing that would convert me to gardening (and a move to the countryside) is the prospect of having an orchard. You don’t need to have loads of space, no serried ranks of perfectly planted trees. Five fruit trees, in fact, is all you need to be able to call it an orchard – a ‘kitchen orchard’.
Since the 1950s, over 60 per cent of the orchards in the UK have disappeared and some counties – such as Oxfordshire and Devon – have lost 90 per cent. We, in turn, have lost a taste for different varieties of apples and pears. We have only the supermarket offerings, bland Golden Delicious apples and pears that often don’t even seem to deserve a name.
Chef Raymond Blanc, who has been establishing an orchard at his restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, says that, properly stored, there is an apple to take you from September to the following June.
He values the suggestions of the late English food writer and fruit enthusiast Edward Bunyard who, Blanc writes in his new book, The Lost Orchard, ‘understood that within its season each apple had a particular moment when aroma, sweetness and acidity would come together in a perfect storm of flavour’.
When planting his orchard, Blanc did many tastings, trying to decide which apples and pears (as well as quince, medlar and stone fruit) were worth planting. He found that Cox’s Orange Pippin was a ‘shining star’ and that Adam’s Pearmain and Discovery are also great varieties to have. (You can find them at farmers’ markets and also from veg box schemes).
When it comes to pears, Blanc regards the Comice as the equivalent of the Cox’s Orange Pippin – it’s one of the pears he cooks with most often at Le Manoir – though he is surprisingly enthusiastic about the most commonly found pear here, the Conference. I, like him, have often found it gritty.
It’s not the kind of pear that gives up its juice so fully that you have to run for a napkin, but it’s a good cooking pear – it keeps its shape. Blanc finds it one of the best pears to eat with cheese too. As it ripens – and you must wait for the perfect moment – the graininess disappears and becomes melting and its low sugar means it has a ‘clean’ pear flavour.
If you want to visit community orchards – and there are plenty in cities as well as in the countryside – you can find what’s near you at ptes.org. And if you want to explore some different varieties of apples and pears and live near Kent, go to Brogdale, the home of the National Fruit collection.
There you won’t just see orchards – though there are 150 acres of them – but can also taste different varieties from fruit in marked bins. They have over 2,000 varieties of apple and 550 of pear – many of which will be on offer at the National Apple Festival next weekend. You might find a fruit that makes you decide to finally plant that orchard. Or even just a single tree…