Words by Lucy Studley
An epic quest to preserve traditional and rare Cornish apple varieties bears fruit.
James Evans and Mary Martin have dedicated four decades to a noble pursuit: seeking out historic and endangered varieties of Cornish apples and preserving them for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations. Now, for the first time in 150 years, truly authentic East Cornwall ciders are being made thanks to a collaboration with Fowey Valley Cidery and Distillery. Bottles of the Old Cornish range hold a taste of a bygone era, when apple trees carpeted the valleys of this corner of Cornwall, producing cider for thirsty farm labourers and sailors visiting these shores from far and wide.
Images by Fayditt Photography
James and Mary have both lived in this part of the world all their lives and share a passion for exploring the lanes, fields and riversides on foot. Mary is an artist by profession and trained at the Royal Academy Schools. “I love painting orchards, setting up my easel amongst the trees,” she enthuses. “Once the economic, social and ritualistic focal point for a whole household or community, they are often rather neglected these days. They have a romantic look, but it’s sad when you think of their cultural value slowly being consumed by weeds.”
On one ramble back in 1980, James and Mary came across an old cider press in a disused barn, and persuaded the farmer to let them and a group of friends renovate the equipment and get it working again, using the traditional method of horsepower to press the apples. More interested in the age-old process itself at this stage, they used whatever apples they could lay their hands on. The project got them interested in local varieties of apples which once flourished but were now dying out – except for a few trees dotted in hedgerows, forgotten orchards and hidden away in back gardens. The apple itself isn’t native to these shores, although you could be forgiven for thinking so given how entwined the nation’s favourite fruit has become in our cultural, social, and religious makeup. Apples are thought to originate from the Tian Shan mountains of Central Asia, from where they made their way along the silk road to Western Europe and eventually worldwide. Along the way, local breeding resulted in a plethora of unique cultivars with distinctive qualities.
Realising the fragility of both the cultivars themselves and knowledge of their existence, James and Mary began exploring the countryside with purpose, looking for and cataloguing apples trees and their fruit. “It felt wonderful to be doing something positive to save these dying orchards, rather than simply painting them,” says Mary. “From the very beginning we made notes on geographic locations, characteristics and appearance, and anything the locals could remember about the origins and characteristics of their apples,” recalls James. “We catalogued the fruit and took photos and cuttings, but putting names to the varieties is incredibly complicated. Many apples have several different names, or none at all, so at first it seemed an impossible task to impose order.”
“At one time, we discovered a tree in the Tamar Valley with apples which looked and tasted entirely different to anything we’d come across. The tree was literally about to be cut down to make way for some landscaping or building work. Luckily, we were able to save the varietal and propagate it in our own orchard. We discovered that it’s known as Breadfruit, and it has a lovely strawberry flavour when ripe.”
The advent of genetic testing has enabled James and Mary to trace the roots of many unusual varieties, the apple equivalent of ancestry research. Their 40+ years of specimen collecting has gradually been examined by East Malling Research Station in Kent, where DNA analysis and genetic fingerprinting are revealing interesting tales about the origins and migrations of Old Cornish varieties over the years. The Breadfruit, for example, was revealed to be an exact match for an apple known as Vajki Alma in Hungary (how it ended up in a tiny Cornish hamlet is anyone’s guess), but James and Mary suspect it’s related to the lost French apple Calville Blanc d’Ete; coincidentally it makes a wonderful French apple tart, as well as a Cornish apple dumpling.
Quite often the results of this scientific analysis come back as ‘unknown variety’, giving James and Mary the task of naming them. Hence their records contain many varieties with wonderfully evocative inherited or given names such as Grow-Bi-Nights, Whitpot Sweet, Pig’s Snout, Pengelly, Manaccan Primrose, Hocking’s Green, Collogett Pippin, Liskeard Gillyflowers, Limberlimb, Ladies Fingers, Banana Pippin, Pendragon and Long Keeper.
For James and Mary, this quest to catalogue and preserve Cornwall’s historic apple varieties is a labour of love, and one they are keen to pass down to the next generation. Their highly respected book, A Cornish Pomona, was first published in 2014 and remains the preeminent text on the subject. But they have done much more than preserve knowledge in the pages of a book; the real gift to the future lies in two ‘mother orchards’ – precious repositories of the apple varieties they have found and preserved during their wanderings.
James carefully cultivates the orchards using natural pest control and eschewing any chemicals. For many years a beekeeper, he nurtures pollinators and the whole ecosystem of the orchards, creating a haven of biodiversity. With the volume of samples collected over the years, space is at a premium, and several of the trees are ‘family trees’, which means that more than one variety is grafted onto a single tree. “Some of our trees carry up to five different varieties of apples, which makes them very difficult to prune but it does help with pollination, as the blossom comes in waves,” explains James.
Now James and Mary have collaborated with renowned cider makers Fowey Valley to produce a very special series of ciders. For Barrie Gibson, Founder and Master Cidermaker at Fowey Valley, their collection is a precious assemblage of red, green, brown, and yellow-hued jewels; an astounding resource to have access to. “Last autumn, we had the pick of these incredible mother orchards,” explains Barrie. “After much enjoyable pontificating between the three of us, we ended up with five barrels of juice in various combinations of apples which our combined knowledge of cultivars and cider-making told us would work well together.”
Following the various stages of fermenting and racking, the juice has been bottled and labelled using Mary’s bucolic paintings of Cornish orchards. The five small-batch ciders are available in very limited quantities and sold on a first-come-basis at Barrie’s cidery in Lostwithiel, and via the Fowey Valley website. The trio hope to repeat the experiment in future years with further releases of the Old Cornish range, no doubt to the delight of cider enthusiasts.
Meanwhile, every autumn Barrie invites local people to donate excess apples for the creation of Fowey Valley’s Castledore Cider, swapping fruit from unsprayed orchards and gardens in return for the finished article – award-winning apple juice or cider. He explains: “The exchange is a great way for us to get to build knowledge of local cultivars and have conversations with people about their apple trees. Of course, if we come across something unusual, we know who to call!”
If this exchange encourages people to keep their trees and understand a little more about their value, James and Mary will be happy. “Large scale food production is now all about monocultures, and therefore the system is growing increasingly vulnerable to adverse weather conditions – exacerbated by climate change – and resistant pests,” explains James. “That doesn’t just apply to apples of course, the same issues affect many of the crops which form a big part of our diets.” Conversely, the rare cultivars James and Mary worked to discover and protect are resistant to things like canker and scab, which can be a huge problem when national varieties are grown in the damp west country. “It is only by preserving the historic cultivars that their future value can be judged,” says Mary. “The mother orchards are our own Cornish seedbank of genetic code, and one that might help future generations solve some of the challenges they will undoubtedly face.”