Seeds of change

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Food writer Pete Brown on why the grenadier apple tree is the perfect Slow Food gift

Few things take longer to nurture than an apple tree. When a new tree is created by the grafting of cuttings on to rootstock, it’ll be three or four years before it bears a full crop. If that cutting was taken from a new variety of apple tree that has been raised in a nursery, the process of nurturing that variety could well have taken more than 20 years. The gift of an apple tree, therefore, is both an appropriate and meaningful one for Slow Food to present to Borough Market.

Following the presentation of an apple tree for the new Market Hall in 2014, the giving of a new tree has become an annual tradition—9th December will see the third such presentation, timed to coincide with Terra Madre Day.

As a celebration of Mother Earth and the friendships forged over deepening our links with her, an apple tree is as good a symbol as any other, and better than most. Since the dawn of civilisation, the apple has been a sacred and symbolic fruit, imbued with special meaning wherever it’s grown.

But there’s more than that to this particular gift.

British apple connoisseurship
This year’s apple is a variety called grenadier. It was discovered in Buckinghamshire in the middle of the 19th century—the height of British apple connoisseurship—and was celebrated for its virtues as a cooking apple.

Britain is the only country in the world that creates a sharp distinction between cooking and eating apples. We want our eating apples to have sweetness at the fore, whereas we expect cookers to be similarly juicy, but sharp and acidic. Grenadier fits the profile perfectly. When baked, its succulent flesh dissolves into a warm mush, making it perfect for purées, and it crops from mid-August onwards—an early harbinger of autumn’s bounty—offering a heavenly filling for the first homemade apple pies of the season.

And yet, grenadier is scarcely seen these days, having disappeared from supermarkets altogether. Once picked, it doesn’t last much more than a week and on the shelf, its lumpy, muscular appearance suggests a thuggish bruiser rather than the delicacy the fruit delivers.

The whims of commerce
In an age where pretty fruit is available all year-round—and when the number of us baking our own apple puddings and pies is declining—grenadier’s face no longer fits. While incredibly hardy to pests and diseases, it’s very vulnerable to the whims of commerce.

Its addition to Borough Market’s embryonic Slow Food orchard, then, is a significant one. Among its other strengths, it’s an excellent pollinator—not only does it crop very well itself, it will help promote bounteous fruit from the trees that surround it, in the mixed ecology that apples love, and supermarkets don’t. For apples are like people: we thrive on diversity.