The Bramley is peerless. There are some 7,500 apple varieties in existence, but none is as esteemed as a cooking apple by British cooks as the Bramley. Apples can be categorised into “eaters” and “cookers” and this is certainly one of the latter: it has a very high level of acidity, which when cooked down guarantees the lightest and fluffiest of purées. It also has a good strong apple flavour, which will stand up to other ingredients. In The Apples of England, the horticulturalist Dr HV Taylor called it “the finest of all culinary apples”.
Elsewhere, such as in France, it is less favoured given perhaps a preference for apples that keep their shape in cooking. It would admittedly be no good for a tarte Tatin. But in British cuisine it is right at home: perfect in pies, crumbles, compotes, chutneys and, of course, apple sauce. It is not posh or cheffy, but here it is the apple of the cook’s eye.
The story of the Bramley – or, to give it its proper name, Bramley’s Seedling – began in 1809 when a young girl, Mary Ann Brailsford, living in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, took some pips from an apple used in her mother’s pie and planted them in the garden. They produced a tree that was then acquired, along with the rest of the garden and cottage, in 1846 by a local butcher, Matthew Bramley. Ten years later, a 17-year-old son of a local nursery owner spotted the attractive, large green apples and asked if he could take cuttings from the tree and sell the fruit. Bramley agreed on the condition the apples bore his name. Clever chap. The original tree stands to this day – lovingly tended to and shown off to visitors from around the word by an everyday hero, Miss Nancy Harrison, until her death in 2014 aged 94. The property has since been bought by Nottingham Trent University, which will take over guardianship of the tree (and one hopes, allow students to make cheap cider from its annual bounty).
One of the simplest of desserts consists of Bramleys, cored and stuffed with dried fruit soaked in cider brandy, and then generously dotted with butter and baked whole, to be served with custard. For most other desserts, your apples will need to be chopped: first peel, then slice or cut up into chunks, squeezing over some lemon juice as you go to stop them turning brown. A simple compote is the most useful recipe of all – it can be everything from breakfast (with granola, yoghurt or porridge) to dessert (in pies or crumble).
Bramleys pair perfectly with fatty pork. A classic apple sauce with a roast is often perfect, but try also this twist with mustard. Consider, too, nestling slices of Bramley in between your pork sausages when making a toad in the hole. As for dessert, the options are endless: from Matt Tebbut’s Fig, apple and almond tart, to Rick Stein’s apple strudel and the Hairy Bikers’ spiced apple cake. If you have a real glut, consider making an apple jelly for use as a condiment, a substitute for jam, or a glaze in desserts. Or experiment with an apple sorbet, or just turn to juice.
Bramleys are harvested from late August and are then stored for availability all year round, but it is in the winter months when there is so few other fruit in season that you should enjoy them to the full. Gorge on them until Bramleys are your every waking thought and dream. Like Robert Frost: “Magnified apples appear and disappear,/ Stem end and blossom end,/ And every fleck of russet showing clear.” One day you will wake to find winter has passed and spring arrived. And it will have been the Bramleys that got you through it.