While red roses and chocolates dominate the retail shelves this week, the iconic, British Bramley apple is adding flashes of green to the ubiquitous Valentine’s Day blitz thanks to Bramley Apple Week coordinated by English Apples and Pears (EAP). Despite the push, many English growers are choosing not to invest in this popular and tasty cooking apple because of poor returns. Produce Business UK assesses the challenges facing the iconic variety and finds out how promotions are helping to stoke both consumer and chef passion
Running on February 8-14, Bramley Apple Week 2016 is seeking to titillate our taste buds like a soporific Valentine’s Day meal via various mouthwatering Bramley recipes – created by some of the country’s leading chefs – that are being uploaded onto various websites and social media channels.
Both chefs and the British public appear to love Bramley apples thanks to their versatility and unique eating experience. Already, chefs have responded enthusiastically to the week-long push, which builds on the positive steps made by the ongoing campaign coordinated by promotional body English Apple and Pears (EAP) since autumn.
However, despite hefty investment in the crop by growers in Northern Ireland, statistics from EAP show that the number of Bramley orchards in England is swiftly shrinking. This season (2015/16), a total of 1,594 hectares of Bramley were under production – compared with the 2,200ha during the 2006/07 season. This represents a decline of more than 600ha in less than a decade.
Adrian Barlow, EAP’s outgoing chief executive, explains: “There is a rising trend of growers grubbing orchards and the primary problem is that the returns to growers are not sufficient. You have got this preposterous situation in the retail market where you have low prices being paid [to growers] by most of the major multiples and the reason for that is they are under attack the whole time from the hard discounters.”
Barlow urges buyers to find out from their suppliers what returns growers need so they can ensure there are adequate Bramley supplies in the future.
He says: “Retailers will have to determine what their consumers want. If they decide their customers do want Bramley then they need to be discussing with their suppliers in order to ensure supplies in the future. Growers will not grow it for nothing. It’s like suggesting to a buyer that he should work for nothing for the good of the business.”
Winning the hearts of chefs and consumers
The impact of current competitive market conditions on growers’ returns adds to a history of bad luck for the cooking apple variety. Around four years ago there was an insufficient volume of Bramleys to meet supply and, after a few seasons of low volumes, demand for the variety slumped and processing prices were affected.
However, although the variety has struggled recently, the volume of fresh sales through the multiples actually rose by 25% last season (2014/15). As Barlow says: “When demand for a product is declining what’s required is strong promotional activity.”
Bramley Apple Week 2016 has invited the country’s top 1,200 chefs (according to The Good Food Guide) to show their support by sharing their signature Bramley recipes. And the interest in the classic cooking apple is palpable.
“Some of the responses we’ve had so far have been fantastic,” reveals Barlow. “We are putting their recipes onto websites and social media with a view to persuading consumers to cook these dishes – all of which are being uploaded onto the Bramley website, as well as on Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (#LoveBramley and #BramleyAppleWeek).”
Consumers and bloggers are being asked to follow the chefs’ lead by picking out their own favourite Bramley dishes and posting them online. “Chef Mark Poynton is going to make a selection around February 20 and the winners will receive hampers of cooking goodies,” Barlow reveals.
So far, this week’s most seductive-looking recipes include: Fricassee of Harome pheasant with Bramley apples, prunes and Ampleforth cider cream by Andrew Pern of The Star Inn, Bramley apple pâté by Gareth Fulford at Purslane, and Bramley apple, cinnamon cheesecake by Chris Exley at The Inn at Welland.
Top chefs clearly enjoy Bramley’s versatility, notes Barlow. “People in the catering sector are being adventurous with Bramley,” he says. In fact, Bramley recipes have been featured in the media since the autumn as part of EAP’s ongoing campaign. During December alone, for example, Bramley recipes were featured in newspapers and on TV programmes including George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, James Martin’s Home Comforts at Christmas and Saturday Kitchen, to name but a few.
The week-long campaign is also designed to highlight the fact that Bramleys provide an eating experience that Barlow describes as “unequalled”. “We are highlighting that superiority,” he points out.
Bramley apple and cinnamon cheesecake
by Chef Chris Exley at The Inn at Welland
The increase in supermarket sales of fresh Bramley apples in 2014/15 suggests EAP’s strong promotional activity can reap positive results for the traditional variety and successfully drive consumer demand.
This season, however, Bramley apples could be facing further troubles because the crop is likely to fall short. Barlow says: “The crop is at the same level as 2012/13 when there were shortages in the mid- to late summer because we just did not have the volume of fruit necessary to meet consumer demand.
“So we have to bear in mind that this season we are likely to be looking at a similar situation in that there will not be sufficient fruit to meet consumer demand right through to the end of the season – and that’s very unfortunate.”
A grower’s view on a sensitive fruit
Kent-based topfruit grower Peter Checkley explains that Bramley is a particularly sensitive apple variety, which is why it’s prone to crop fluctuations.
“Bramleys are fickle things,” he admits. “They have three full sets of genes so their pollination requirements are higher – they are triploids, whereas Cox and Gala [for example] are diploids. When it’s cold and the bees are not flying as much it’s likely you are not going to have a very good crop. Bramleys are very sensitive.”
Checkley also points out that even though it’s tricky to grow and many orchards are being removed, Bramley production still has a place in the British topfruit-growing calendar.
He says: “We cannot grow only one variety because you need a season that’s long enough to support the harvest team [the pickers]. For example, if you just grow Gala – which is picked around the third week of September – you finish by the first or second week of October, which is a small picking window. Because Bramley is harvested before Gala it expands our season – just as Braeburn does the same at the end [of the season].”
Checkley adds that he has actually invested in a new Bramley orchard. “In the 12 years I have been here on Broadwater Farm we have dropped our [Bramley] acreage by let’s say 60 or 70 acres [24ha to 28ha]. But they were orchards with old trees that produced biennial crops. What we have left now is much more consistent, younger trees.
“Last winter we planted a new Bramley orchard on the much more modern trellis system that supports mechanical thinning and pruning. What we have attempted to do with our new Bramley orchard is to reduce the cost of growing the variety. If we are going to receive less money – which we do seem to every year – we’ve got to produce apples for less.”
But, as Barlow says, English growers first need to be paid sufficient returns in order to invest in such modern growing systems.
“[Bramley] It’s a thoroughly British thing and it’s loved by huge amounts of people – it would be sorely missed if it’s gone,” Checkley concludes.
Bramley apple pâté by Chef Gareth Fulford
at Purslane Restaurant