With one a day said to keep the doctor at bay, apples are today one of the nation’s most popular fruits. But the lunchbox staple also has a curious history. Here, food historian Joanna Crosby reveals 9 things you probably didn’t know about the history of apples…
1) The apple originated in the so called ‘fruit forest’ of Eastern Europe
The fruit would have been smaller and more bitter than the apples we eat today. Travellers through the forest would have eaten the larger, sweeter apples, and started the process of selection, spreading pips across Europe and north into the Baltic regions.
2) In the Christian tradition the apple is associated with Eve’s disobedience, right? Wrong
She ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and so God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. But the fruit is not described as an apple in any of the texts – the apple was put into the story by artists.
3) Apples don’t grow true from a pip – each apple pip grows up into a unique tree
The only way to get exactly the same apple is to graft a piece of apple wood onto a piece of rootstock. The ancient Egyptians knew how to do this, as did the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The Celts were also aware of how to cultivate apples, so sweet apples existed in Britain before the Romans arrived.
4) Royalty have always loved apples
Henry VII paid huge sums for individual apples, and Henry VIII had an orchard in Kent with many different varieties, and he imported French gardeners to look after them. Meanwhile, Catherine the Great loved Golden Pippin apples so much she had them brought over to her palace in Russia, each one wrapped in real silver paper.
Queen Victoria was also a fan – she particularly liked baked apples. A canny Victorian nurseryman called Lane named a variety ‘Lane’s Prince Albert.’ This apple is still in cultivation.
5) Apples are a linked to fairyland
It’s said that if you fall asleep in an orchard you may wake up years later, while treasure buried under an apple tree will allegedly never rot or be found. It’s no coincidence that we go apple bobbing at Halloween: both the water and the fruit will put you in touch with the fairy kingdom. One Halloween tradition involves taking a bite from an apple and then sleeping with it under your pillow in order to dream of your true love.
6) Cooked apples were served as a street food
An 18th-century Italian traveller, Caraciolli, complained that the only ripe fruit he ate in Britain was a baked apple. A form of roasted, semi-dried apple – the Norfolk Biffin – is mentioned by Charles Dickens as a Christmas delicacy: the Victorians ate a lot more fruit and vegetables than we might think.
7) Apples were sold from barrows and baskets in the streets of the big cities by costermongers
This old-fashioned word for greengrocer comes from ‘costard’, which was a large variety of apple. Lord Shaftesbury, Victorian campaigner for children’s rights, once disguised himself as a costermonger, complete with a barrow of fruit and veg, to experience the working conditions for himself.
8) The Victorian era saw a huge increase in the number of apple varieties being grown
Many of these were bred by gardeners on large estates, and although they put the work in – grafting the scion onto the rootstock – the apples were named after their employers. Examples of such named varieties still extant include Lady Henniker and Lord Burleigh.
9) The Victorians studied apples
In 1854 the British Pomological Association was formed to test new varieties of fruit to establish their suitability for British growers. Its secretary, Robert Hogg, had set out his knowledge of fruit in his British Pomology, in 1851. Hogg’s opening sentence shows how important the apple had become to all aspects of culture and cultivation: “There is no fruit, in temperate climes, so universally esteemed and so extensively cultivated, nor is there any which is so closely identified with the social habits of the human species, as the apple”.
Joanna is a food historian studying at the University of Essex. She is halfway through a PhD on the social and cultural history of the apple and the orchard. Joanna is also one of the founders of the Trumpington Community Orchard Project, a local community orchard – it was this project that inspired her apple research, or ‘pomology’. When she is not studying Victorian texts, or weeding the orchard, she works in a local garden centre and gives talks on how to look after apple trees.