We’ve loved apples here in Kent – and produced some of the very best – for millennia. As they ripen on the tree, author Naomi Dickens explores their history within the county

As September steals in, the fierce blaze of summer mellows, and autumn’s gentle glow begins to gild the landscape with its russet warmth. Now, the Kent countryside will be embellished in a riot of jewel tones, from brightest jade to deepest ruby, as the apple harvest comes into season. Across the county, there are pockets of apple orchards, some with ancient origins and others newly established, producing a crop that has formed part of the identity of this area for centuries. Apples are important here. Kent is one of only three counties in England and Wales (along with neighbouring East Sussex and Suffolk) to have increased their orchard cover over the last hundred years; now, thanks to modern initiatives and planting schemes, this county boasts the highest orchard coverage of any in the country. As well as this, Kent is host to the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Farm, near Faversham, where specimens of over 2,200 apple varieties, including some with local names, such as Beauty of Kent, Flower of Kent and the Weavering Apple, are preserved.

Great British Life: Pomona, goddess of the orchard, was venerated by Kent's Roman settlers.Pomona, goddess of the orchard, was venerated by Kent's Roman settlers.

This county’s love affair with the apple stretches back millennia, pre-dating the arrival of the Romans, who brought with them the cult of Pomona, goddess of the orchard. By the time of the great monastic houses, the apple had become a farmed commodity, grown in orchards like those shown on the 1165 ‘waterworks plan’ of Christ Church Priory, Canterbury. These orchards were carefully tended and jealously guarded, for apples held great value: as a sweet, edible treat, and in the form of cider (so beloved of the Normans), an orchard’s produce would have provided delicacies for the abbot’s table. The monasteries’ physicians were also aware of the apple’s medicinal applications - from respiratory complaints to upset stomachs, toothache to arthritis, the apple’s complex nutritional benefits are the reason it is now known as a ‘superfood’.

It was during the Tudor period that Kent apple farming really began to gather pace, largely due to the pioneering work of Richard Harris, fruiterer to Henry VIII. Gifted with one hundred and five acres of prime farmland at Teynham, in the 1530s, Harris set about gathering fruit scions from across the continent, importing many varieties of apple as well as pear and cherry and introducing new varieties, such as the pippin apples, into the British Isles. He quickly created a fruit collection to rival any in Europe and the success of his venture proved such an inspiration that, very soon, there were fruit farms dotted all over the county. Originally catering for the ravenous appetites of the Tudor capital, by the eighteenth century, Kent apple farmers were sending their produce beyond London, to every corner of the island, an industry that would only expand as the development of the railways opened up wider markets and seemingly infinite opportunities.

Great British Life: Bob Luck, celebrated Kent cider maker, loading apples onto the elevator at Frogs Hole Cider Works, Benenden, Kent (image courtesy of Evelyn Luck).Bob Luck, celebrated Kent cider maker, loading apples onto the elevator at Frogs Hole Cider Works, Benenden, Kent (image courtesy of Evelyn Luck).

Over half our national apple produce goes into cider production and the pressing of cider is well-practised in Kent. Real cider, which is fermented like wine, contains nothing but apples and natural yeasts, so it has long been a staple of the rural diet. Agricultural workers were often given a measure of cider in lieu of wages and no doubt many families turned their hands to cider pressing as the evenings lengthened and thoughts turned to laying in winter stores. The farm workers may have gone, but the last twenty years have seen a steady resurgence of farmhouse cider making in Kent; small-scale, independent makers are reviving traditional methods and rediscovering the abundant variety of local ingredients. Ciders in the Kent or Eastern Counties style are identified by their distinctive, acidic character, which is derived from using exclusively culinary and dessert apple varieties, such as Cox’s, Bramley and Russets, rather than the cider varieties used to produce West Country ciders. The ingredients might be few, but cider does require a good measure of patience; fermentation takes months (if not years!) so we won’t be sampling the 2023 vintage for some time yet …

Great British Life: An autumn afternoon in orchards near Headcorn.An autumn afternoon in orchards near Headcorn.

Of course, many apple varieties are good for keeping and apple lofts would once have been crammed with precious produce, carefully wrapped and regularly turned, to last our forebears through the darker months. Today, commercial producers rely on a sophisticated system of atmospheric controls which retard natural processes of deterioration, meaning that supermarkets can provide their customers with ‘fresh’ fruits all year round. For the home-grower, however, a glut of apples provides an excuse for some serious kitchen wizardry; one local teatime treat, popular with hop-pickers at the end of their long day’s work, was Kentish Rarebit. This twist on the traditional adds apple slices, browned in butter, beneath the cheese before toasting. Apple jams, jellies and butters are very easily produced and are a trusted means of preserving the fruits for months, however, baked apple goods are likely to be snapped up pretty quickly. This recipe for Kentish Apple Cake is delicious served warm with cream or custard, or cold, as an accompaniment to afternoon tea. Bramleys produce a great flavour, but other eating apples such as Cox’s Pippin work well - and if you use a red or blushed variety, such as Katy or Malling Sunburst (developed by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany at East Malling), its colour will permeate the cake with a pinkish glow!


Some Kent-named varieties of apple

Great British Life: Beauty of Kent - one of the many varieties named for the county.Beauty of Kent - one of the many varieties named for the county.

Beauty of Kent - This culinary variety was first recorded in 1790, but became popular with cooks during Queen Victoria’s reign. Its large fruits are yellow-fleshed with a rich, sweet flavour.

Flower of Kent - Now rare, this green cooking apple is also known as ‘Isaac Newton’s Apple’ as it is believed that Newton was sitting beneath a tree of this variety at his home, Woolsthorpe Manor, in Lincolnshire, when he was struck by the apple of inspiration!

Kentish Fillbasket – Recorded from the 1760s onwards, this cooker has vibrantly streaked, colourful skin and richly flavoured, tangy flesh.

Maid of Kent - Although records for this variety only date to the 1920s, it is believed to be an ancient cultivar, grown in both Kent and Sussex. Its bright red fruit with some pale green streaking holds a crisp, white, fresh-flavoured flesh.

Christmas Pearmain – This medium-sized dessert apple was introduced by Kent apple grower, George Bunyard, in 1895. Its skin is mottled in autumnal shades and it has a rich, acidic flavour that matures just in time for the Christmas table.

‘Apples, Cherries, Hops - Food and Drink of Kent’ by Naomi Dickins, published by Amberley Publishing, is available at all bookshops and through Amazon, at £15.99