by Rachel Phipps
If you’re either an expert or an enthusiast in any subject area, you’ll come across books you love which are engaging, fascinating, and informative but which don’t have wide appeal. I thought The Lost Orchard: A French chef rediscovers and great British food heritage, written by acclaimed Michelin-starred French chef and Vice President of Garden Organic, to be one of those books.
The story of his mission to plant an orchard full of heritage apple, pear, and other fruit varieties that may otherwise soon be lost to us at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons - his award-winning hotel and kitchen gardens in Oxfordshire. Instead, I found a beautiful and engaging read that raises some serious questions about how we eat fruit - as well as some delicious recipes!
Why should you read The Lost Orchard?
Ignore the important messages for a moment, at its heart, The Lost Orchard is simply a beautiful book for anyone with an interest in eating, cooking, or gardening to read. After Raymond has explained the mission of building both his English and French orchards - inspiration came when filming a television show, he found himself standing in an abandoned orchard heavy with fruit that was just rotting and falling to the ground. He regales us with the tale of ‘The Great Apple Tasting’, where he searched far and wide for examples of every variety of apple his team could think of so they could be tasted and tested side by side by chefs and gardeners in search of the perfect fruit.
Then, Raymond visits each apple individually, which is what makes this book so charming. After sharing the name of each apple, how many he’s planted, and its appearance, we get the story. Some of them are fascinating, such as the 17th-century Catshead, which becomes entwined in the story of Sir Thomas Tresham, a Catholic who started building his country estate so he could practice his faith without fear of prosecution by the Protestants and whose son Francis became implicated in the Gunpowder Plot. Others, such as the Calville Blanc D’Hiver whose ‘ribbed yellow flesh with a red blush’ has been identified as being the apple featured in Monet’s 1880 still life Apples and Grapes, or the entry where we learn who exactly was ‘Granny Smith’ are whimsical.
The Golden Delicious Apple - part of the problem or inspiration for a solution?
However, it is in some of these stories, such as that of the Golden Delicious - previously maligned by Blanc as part of the problem - which start to betray the real message of this book. At first, he did not want any planted in his orchard. He perceived them as part of the problem. As one of the apples whose uniform popularity among supermarket buyers and, therefore, consumers had led to the slow decline of other interesting varieties. Besides, he’s a chef, and he’d tasted a supermarket Golden Delicious, describing it as ‘quite pleasant, but bland… lacking the character, complexity and acidity of other varieties. But then, a friend persuaded him otherwise, describing a Golden Delicious he’d eaten plucked right from the tree on which it had been allowed to ripen, in contrast to the ‘supermarket apple, which is grown on the other side of the world, picked when pale and unripe, and stored for up to twelve months before it appears on the supermarket shelves in Britain.’
Supermarkets are killing our heritage fruit varieties, contributing to both a tremendous culinary loss and to one in biodiversity too.
At the end of each section, each apple is put through its culinary paces, judging each for flavor eaten raw, juiced, and how it holds up to being pureed, being used to make his mother’s famous French apple tart, and how it does in a Tarte Tatin. This is a technical culinary guide as well as a horticultural one: each fruit chapter (while the focus of this book is on apples, pears, cherries, peaches, plums, and apricots is given a bit of time in the end) ends with a list of the best apples for each culinary purpose. There are growing notes too, where they have included the trees in their orchards, which I’m sure will be equally as useful if a fruit tree is something you’re looking to invest in at home.
Interspersed through the apples, though, come the essays, which are really the reason I wanted to review this book for The Mindful Fork rather for any other publication.
In The Rise and Fall of the English Apple, we’re taken back to Victorian England. A time when apples were a much more important part of the fabric of national identity, and I’m saying that as someone from a county known as ‘The Garden of England.’ Raymond describes how different varieties would be displayed at dinner parties and discussed around the table from a culinary and horticultural perspective. Similarly, as we today would discuss fine wines.
Here, he discusses the ‘zenith’ of the decline of the great British apple orchard in the 1970s in an excerpt from The Rise and Fall of the English Apple:
The supermarkets that were beginning to push out the small greengrocers wanted a ready supply of uniformly perfect-looking, sweet apples with a long shelf life, so even the national favourites like Blenheim Orange, Ribston Pippin and Worcester Pearmain were sidelined, along with the rarer, more unusual old apples. Only the Cox’s Orange Pippin was able to stand its ground. In 2004 orchards began to be ‘grubbed up’, in order to quality for EU grants for turning them into open farmland.
There we have it - the decline in good-tasting, bio-diverse, and interesting varieties of apples in the UK! This was driven both by supermarkets' demand for uniformity and a central farming policy dictated by the European Union. Designed to apply across all member states without a thought for individual practices and the agricultural heritage of individual countries. The British public voted in 2016 to be able to make their own decisions on the latter by leaving the EU, but the initial factor that lead to the decline in diverse apple varieties? That is something that every single one of us who shops for fruit in a supermarket across the world should take on board and bear some responsibility for because while this book is about apples and orchard fruits, the same lesson can be applied to almost everything sold in the fresh produce section. If you are lucky enough to have the privilege, time, and access to voting with your wallet and shop elsewhere, you should.
Threaded throughout the book and not just featured in the story of the Golden Delicious is a chef's perspective on complex flavors in these apples that he simply does not recognize from the supermarket. Varieties that have been kept in cold storage rather than being allowed to ripen naturally: the difference between apples of the same variety treated in these radically different ways is the most telling. I think we should also think about what we’re all missing out on by unthinkingly championing mass-produced varieties just because it happens to be convenient.
Raymond Blanc's message is optimistic yet realistic of the difficulties
The Lost Orchard is not just the story of a dream orchard of some 2,500 trees planted by a very successful man for a PR stunt because he can afford it. Yes, it portrays a hopeful, optimistic view of what our orchards and our apples could be in Britain - and in any other fruit-growing country blighted by the same supply chain demands and requirements - but it is realistic, too. Passionate about growing organic and committed to nurturing the garden without the pesticides so often required for industrial crops, Raymond Blanc also shares the disappointments and failures of his project, the low yields he often suffers, and shows a clear understanding that what he has achieved would not be practical on a commercial level.
A story of HOPE and DOING BETTER
The Lost Orchard is instead a story of hope, a story about doing better, and a look at an agricultural future we may look both forward to, as well as backward at if we learn the lessons laid down by the book and not just make the big changes, but the smaller ones too: happily the book dedicates a lot of time to the individuals and organizations working to at least mitigate, if not reverse the decline of the English orchard, from community groups of enthusiasts to the work done by scientists and conservationists determined to preserve ancient and much-loved varieties, as well as the stories behind them that are often steeped in important regional histories of the communities in which trees of the past were discovered and nurtured.
This fall, we at The Mindful Fork urge you to buy a local variety of apples from a local orchard that you’ve never tried before. Even this small action will help make a difference.