In celebration of Bramley Apple Week, Paula McIntyre, Northern Irish director to the Slow Food UK board and Borough Market regular, waxes lyrical about this highly traditional British fruit
The first bramley apple tree was grown in 1809 from pips planted by a young girl called Mary Ann Brailsford at her home in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. A butcher named Matthew Bramley bought the house and garden in 1846. Local nurseryman Henry Merryweather asked to take some cuttings from the tree to sell and Matthew agreed, provided the tree was known as the bramley. An English classic was born.
In 1884, a Mr Nicholson of Cranagill House in County Armagh in Northern Ireland bought 60 seedlings from Henry. At this stage, there were more than 100 different varieties of apple tree growing in the county. The bramley thrived in Armagh—thankfully, it’s a fruit that likes a good dousing of rain all year round. As it flourished, it usurped the other apples growing in the region and is now the most commonly available apple.
In 2012, the Armagh bramley was awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, ranking it in the world with other cherished foods associated with their place like English Stilton cheese and Italian Parma ham.
The landscape of Armagh is defined by the bramley orchards. Drive along the main motorway between the capital city of Belfast and the border with southern Ireland and you’ll slice through the middle of lush land, dotted with trees. In May, they’re a mass of pinky-white blossom, like rows of blushing brides. These give way to plump, verdant, fruit-filled trees in summer and finally stark, grey branches, trimmed, round and bowing like reverent monks, acknowledging the bountiful harvest.
When you go into the heart of the countryside you’ll find random boxes of apples tucked in country lanes or at the corner of fields. Six-foot-high, weather beaten wooden containers with grassy green fruit—sometimes with a ruddy red, mottled streak—poking out of the top. Stalls are set up at the side of busy roads where you can pick up the rotund, misshapen apples and inhale their deep, irresistible fragrance before purchasing a paper bag full to bursting.
Armagh bramley apples are denser than their English counterparts, having endured more rain and frost than those produced in sunnier climes across the water. They weigh down on your palm and when you cut into the flesh, it bursts with lip puckering juice.
Buttery baked shortcrust
In Northern Ireland, apple pie is our national dish: tangy fruit suspended in warm, buttery baked shortcrust, dolloped with fresh whipped cream, it encapsulates our great local ingredients. A classic Ulster traybake is apple cream, where crisp pastry shells are filled with stewed, sweetened bramley apples with a crown of whipped cream on top. No baptism, funeral or social gathering would be complete without its presence.
The tartness of bramley makes it the perfect foil for rich, crackling-enrobed pork when made into apple sauce. In winter, a spice-infused apple chutney is sublime with rich terrines or meat-filled pies. Their sharp crispness cuts through oily mackerel or smoked eel and combines surprisingly well with salty seaweed and bitter herbs like lovage, sage and thyme.
In summer, fragrant elderflower or meadowsweet fuses beautifully with the bramley in a mousse or fool. When autumn brings hedgerow blackberries, rowans, sloes and elderberries, the bramley steps up to the plate again with these treasures to make hot sponges, crunchy crumbles, jellies and infusions.
The bramley apple is a British institution, deservedly honoured in a special week devoted to it, from 6th–12th February.