Even before our guide Mike Roser took us through the origins and history of apple cultivation, I had it in my head that the National Fruit Collection (NFC) at Brogdale was about collecting and preserving traditional British varieties of apples, alongside other fruits such as pears, plums and cherries.

I was wrong on at least two counts, the first being my understanding of the purpose of the NFC and the second being that the collection is international, not national, in scope.

Not only is it a living museum but it is also a genetic bank and that’s where the importance of the collection lies”, explained Mike, before walking us through pear, apple and plum collections and telling us about the origins of the NFC.

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The Origins of The NFC

The NFC grew out of fruit trials created by the Royal Horticultural Society in the 19th and 20th centuries, first in Chiswick and later at Wisley in Surrey. The original intent of the trials was to collect, categorise and agree nomenclature for the assembled varieties, but they were soon expanded to include research on horticultural methods and cultivation of new varieties. After WW2, when increasing food production was a national priority, the collection was taken over by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods (now DEFRA) who relocated it to a larger site in Kent, where it is today. It is curated for DEFRA by the University of Reading and they’ve appointed FAST (Farm Advisory Services Team) to perform the day to day management. A charity called Brogdale Collections promotes and organises public access to the collection, providing daily tours such as the one we enjoyed.

Today, the NFC is the largest living collection of temperate fruits on one site in the world, conserving over 2,000 cultivars (cultivated varieties) of apples, around 500 pears, over 300 each of plums and cherries alongside collections of currants, gooseberries, grapes, nuts, medlars, quinces and apricots. It is run on behalf of the nation as a resource for scientific research and provides a much-valued gene bank for fruit breeders developing new cultivars. It is also the UK’s contribution to an international programme to protect genetic diversity of crop plants and future food security. (Read more about The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, here). Working with East Malling Research, the entire pear and apple collections have now been DNA finger printed, and work continues on analysing the other fruit collections.

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A Living Collection

As Pete and I tour the apple, pear and plum orchards with Mike, we learn that the collection must be maintained as living trees because such fruits do not “come true” from seed. (The most common way for propagating apples is to graft a short branch of the desired variety, known as the scion, onto suitable rootstock. As the name suggests, the rootstock produces the roots of the tree, governing how large the tree grows overall, and the scion grows into the branches, leaves and fruits of the tree.) At Brogdale, each orchard contains two trees of each cultivar, and the orchards themselves are mirrored every few decades – Mike shows us how much larger the trees in the older apple orchard are than those in the recently planted mirror. He explains that both were grafted to the same dwarf root stock, but the trees in the new orchard also have an interstock that sits between rootstock and scion and inhibits the final tree size and shape even more. Mike adds that much of the creation of different rootstocks and grafting techniques has been carried out by East Malling Research, with a view to increase resistance to pests and disease, control tolerance to different climates or terrains and to shape the ultimate size of the trees.

Today’s growers benefit not just from the genetic diversity of the NFC, which allows them to cross existing varieties to create new ones, but also from this kind of horticultural research that helps farmers take control over their orchards, improve harvesting methods, increase yields and tempt consumers with new and exciting fruits.

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Quince and Medlar, both part of the enormous Rosaceae family, which includes rosa (roses), rubus (raspberries, blackberries), prunus (stone fruits, almonds) plus apples, pears and many more

The History of Apples

The history of apple cultivation is fascinating: wild apple trees (Malus sieversii) originated in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Xinjiang, China) and have been cultivated there for millennia, certainly the apple is likely the earliest tree to be cultivated for domestic use. Recent genetic analysis confirms that our modern day domesticated apples (Malus domestica) descended from these wild Asian ancestors, with some (limited) introgression of genes from European crabapples (Malus sylvestris). Domesticated apples spread out from Central Asia many thousands of years ago.

Although it’s been suggested that the Romans bought apples to Britain, apples had reached our shores long before that, though they were not grown here in large numbers. The Romans introduced sweeter varieties, organised cultivation and created our first apple orchards, though many were abandoned in the centuries after the fall of Roman rule. Apple agriculture was revived by the Norman invasion, who brought with them new varieties and cultivation methods and certainly improved our cider-making skills. Yet, a few hundred years later, production was in decline once again. In the 1530s, Henry VIII was responsible for a change in the apple’s fortune, instructing his fruiterer to identify, introduce and grow new varieties – this resulted in the creation of expansive new apple orchards in Kent.

For the next couple of hundred years there was little innovation or ordered methodology to apple cultivation, but this period soon gave way to the era of botanical exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whilst most of us are familiar with the names of Charles Darwin and Joseph Banks (Captain Cook’s botanist), most of the scientific flora and fauna collectors of that period are little known now. But their impact on the horticulture and agriculture of Britain was profound; many of the species of plants we grow in our parks and gardens today were brought back to Britain by these explorers. There was huge interest and research into which species were and were not related, how they had evolved and from which ancestors, how they should most accurately be categorised and named (the current binominal nomenclature Latin naming conventions were formally accepted during this period) and how best to propagate and grow both native and introduced plant species. It was in this climate that the The Horticultural Society of London was founded in 1804 (by Joseph Banks and John Wedgwood), later becoming the Royal Horticultural Society when granted a royal charter by Prince Albert in 1861.

I talked above about the origins of the NFC. The background to the early fruit trials was a prevalent confusion at the time over the multiple different names many fruit cultivars acquired as they were propagated and distributed from country to country and region to region, especially true of apples. Often, breeders would give existing cultivars new names to boost their sales or based on a local nickname. The plan was that all cultivars in the collection would be verified as correct against published and agreed descriptions and this would then form a living reference library to clearly identify synonyms, unknown varieties and new cultivars.

The first edition of Hogg’s Herefordshire Pomona, a catalogue of apple and pear varieties grown across the county, was published in 1878. In 1883 the National Apple Congress provided an unprecedented opportunity to examine and compare varieties grown across the entire country. Cox’ Orange Pippin was voted the best apple of Southern England that year, and Bramley’s Seedling also came to prominence at the congress.

In the late 1800s, commercial growers were feeling the pressure, forced to compete with imports not only from mainland Europe but also from Canada, the USA, South Africa and even Australasia. In fact, there was even a Fruit Crusade, during which the RHS put its weight behind a campaign to encourage consumers to choose British produce over imported fruit such as “Yankee” apples. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Today, I often find myself discussing the merits of foregoing fruit when it’s out of season in the UK, and the resultant joy of eating locally grown British varieties when their time rolls around again.

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Visiting and Buying from Brogdale

Brogdale is open to visitors throughout the year but tours are offered from March to October only. Entry on a normal day is £7.50 for adults, £2.50 for children or £20 for a family ticket. When a special event or festival is on, those prices are £8, £4 and £20. Alternatively you can buy an annual pass for £22 per adult, including festivals, or £10 per adult, excluding them. Check the Brogdale Collections website for the latest information.

A guided tour will usually include an overview of some of the history above, as well as the chance to learn about and try some of the fruit in season during your visit. Our guide, Mike Roser, has been guiding at Brogdale for ten years, after nearly 40 years working in the fruit industry and supermarket retail management, so the depth and breadth of his knowledge was immense. We learned a huge amount about many varieties of apples, pears and plums and were able to taste some that were ready to harvest as we walked around the site with him.

Another aspect of our visit I particularly appreciated was the onsite shop which sells fruit harvested from the orchards. The harvests aren’t huge for any given variety, of course, but this is a great way to try unusual varieties you will not have encountered before, and to take some home and cook with them too. At the time of our visit, cherries were just coming to the end of their season and plums were at their peak, so I was able to bring back 5 different types of cherries and 12 different plums. I’ll share some notes and recipes with you in a future post.

There’s also a small marketplace with a number of local independent businesses including a lovely little bakery selling cakes and fruit pies, a butcher’s, a drinks shop and a couple of others.

A small garden centre sells fruit trees and other gardening supplies, though make sure you’ve checked first on best times of year to buy and plant fruit trees.

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Pears, harvested for sale in the Brogdale Collections shop

Fruit Identification Service

Brogdale also offer a fruit identification service, for just £20 per variety. This is great if you’ve bought a house (or inherited an allotment plot) and are uncertain about the variety of apple, pear or plum tree in the garden.

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Trailblazer plums (top), another variety (bottom)

 

Our visit to the Brogdale Collection was organised by Lusso Catering, who have partnered with the National Fruit Collection to launch “Forgotten Fruit”, an initiative to promote “the use of ancient and arcane varieties of fruit, most of which have fallen prey to the commercialisation of orchards where crop and fruit size, storability and pristine appearance is valued over character, texture and flavour nuance.” They have pledged to re-introduce forgotten varieties onto the menus they serve to corporate clients across the UK. Many thanks to them for facilitating our visit.

Although much information was provided by our guide Mike Roser, and by Brogdale Collections, I’ve also included  a lot of extra information gleaned from additional reading and research. As such, the blame for any errors is mine.

 

Do you know what a Bronze turkey is? What about a Kelly Bronze? No? Neither did I before a recent visit to the Kelly Turkey Farm in Danbury, Essex.

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My parents came to England from India just a few years before I was born and, of course, there was no tradition in our family of eating turkeys for Christmas. Indeed, there was no tradition of celebrating Christmas at all, but we quickly adopted all the elements we liked – a Christmas tree, presents, a huge roast dinner and sitting in front of the telly watching Christmas specials afterwards…

None of us ever developed a taste for turkey though. My sister and I probably first encountered it in festive school dinners; my parents in similar meals served in the canteens of the hospitals where they worked. None of us could understand the obsession with this bland, dry white meat that had to be soaked in gravy and cranberry sauce to make it palatable!

But turkey wasn’t always like this!

 

The History of Turkey in the UK

In the Middle Ages (from the 5th to the 15th centuries), the eating birds of choice were peacocks and swans for the royal court, goose for those who could afford it and chicken for those who couldn’t.

Spanish traders bought the turkey to Europe from Central America back in the 1500s, and they quickly became hugely popular, particularly for Christmas. These exotic birds had far more meat on them than chickens, and were tastier than other larger birds such as swans or peacocks. At first, the import trade thrived, but it wasn’t long before British farmers started breeding turkeys and were soon raising many thousands each year. These farms concentrated in East Anglia, where there was plenty of grain to feed the turkeys and easy access to a large and rapidly growing consumer base, in London.

By the early 1700s, farmers would make the annual turkey walk from their farms in Norfolk to London, taking about 250,000 birds to the London markets. Drivers left the farms in August, walking flocks of 300 to 1000 birds each. The turkeys fed on stubbles (the stubs of stalks left in the fields after the crop has been harvested) and at feeding stations along the route. To get the best sale price, it was essential not to rush the turkeys, or they would lose too much weight, so the turkey walk took a good couple of months.

Cookery books of the period, by authors such as Kenelm Digby, Hannah Glasse and Mrs Beeton, shared as many recipes for turkey if not more, than for chicken, goose or duck.

Despite the impressive numbers, turkey was expensive and a whole bird was affordable only to the wealthier upper classes. But street vendors sold turkey in pies or pieces, and hence it became popular with the wider population too.

 

Bronze to White

Like the original birds first exported from Mexico (both wild and domesticated), until relatively recently the turkeys farmed in the UK were all bronze – that is to say they were covered in black feathers tinged with a beautiful bronze sheen.

In the decade following the second world war, commercial broad-breasted bronze varieties were crossed with a white-feathered breed to produce broad-breasted white-feathered breeds. The white feather colour meant that the pin feathers and shafts were far less visible after the carcass had been processed and dressed, and the broad breasts gave plenty of meat.

Customers, and the supermarkets (which were becoming more prevalent during this period) appreciated these characteristics and virtually all commercial turkey farmers switched from traditional bronze to white turkeys.

At around the same time and into the 1960s, agriculture went through a period of genetic selection programmes, often using new scientific techniques, and intensive farming methods became commonplace. Consumer tastes called for larger, heavier birds with more white meat and farmers favoured birds that grew to saleable size quickly and which grew larger than traditional breeds.

Indeed, this was much the same story that saw rare breed pigs (often slow to mature, and with dark black hairs on their skin) replaced in popularity by faster growing, pale haired breeds. Flavour was overlooked in favour of more commercial qualities.

White turkeys continue to be selectively bred for size and speed of growth, and the average weight has increased by 100% every decade for the last several decades. Indeed, many of these varieties are now unable to mate naturally, are too heavy to be able to move easily and often suffer from heart problems due to their extreme weight.

By the 1970s, very few farmers commercially bred bronze turkeys, and only a few very small flocks remained across the UK.

 

Kelly Bronze

Derek Kelly, having worked in the turkey farming industry for some years, wanted to start his own business selling higher quality turkey. He believed in slower and longer maturation, careful selection of feed, traditional dry-plucking and hanging the carcasses to develop flavour and he was convinced that people would pay a premium for a better product. When he and wife Molly first set up their business in 1971, he initially bred white turkeys, but found it hard to market the differences to consumers.

In the early ’80s Derek travelled around the UK and purchased most of the remaining flocks of bronze turkeys he could find, which amounted to less than 300 birds. These he crossbred together for five years, to broaden the genetic base, after which he began to group them into breeding families for different end weights and other characteristics.

To produce the best finished product possible, Kelly not only selected for flavour, but also developed an end to end process. The birds are raised free range. They are fed a fixed formulation feed (not whatever is available for the best price at the time) and are drug free. They are matured slowly and for longer. When they are ready, they are dry processed and then hung for two weeks.

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These quality bronze turkeys quickly gained a reputation. The first to stock them was David Lidgate in London. Delia Smith made a visit to the farm in 1989 and recommended Norfolk Blacks in one of her cookery books at the time. More recently, Jamie Oliver has been a firm fan and supporter. They are not alone.

Today, Kelly grow 140,000 turkeys for the Christmas trade, with a small number also on sale for Thanksgiving. As well as their original farm in Essex, they have two sister companies in Holland and Germany and have just launched in the United States this year.

Our tour of the farm was conducted by Paul Kelly, current MD and son of Derek and Molly.

He told us that demand in the UK remains heavily seasonal, with virtually all their sales coming in November and December. But of course, their business runs all year round. From January through to March, they selectively breed stock. April through to August is for egg laying, brooding and hatching. From August to November the poults are raised to maturity. And in November and December, the turkeys are dry-processed, hung and prepared.

We were particularly tickled to learn that after the dry plucking (with a device akin to an epilator) the turkeys are waxed to remove any remaining feather shafts. Yes, really, just like in a beauty salon!

The Kelly Bronze turkeys are sold to both catering and individual consumers, directly and via butchers. Although mail order is available, many local buyers love to come to the farm to collect their Christmas birds.

 

The Confusion

Although Kelly breed stock for their own farms, they also sell hatching eggs and poults to other farmers, through their FarmGate Hatcheries business.

Some of these farmers choose to breed turkeys along the same lines as Kelly but some decide on different feed formulations, some don’t have the space or facilities to raise the birds free range, some use the more common wet-plucking to process their birds and many won’t hang the birds after processing.

In all cases, these birds are bronze turkeys, but are not Kelly Bronze turkeys, regardless of the fact that they are raised from the same breeding stock.

But Kelly also operate a franchise of 28 farmers who have signed up to follow their exact processes, and these birds are sold under the Kelly Bronze brand.

Of course, Kelly Turkey Farms are not the only company to produce high quality free range bronze turkeys fed on good quality feed, allowed to mature for longer, dry plucked and hung for flavour. The great news is that, even in a recession, consumers are willing to pay more for really good meat, even if that means they eat meat less often.

 

Meeting The Turkeys

In recent years, Kelly Bronze have been moving towards a more natural style of free range farming, by giving the turkeys the natural cover of woodland. Turkeys can cope with rain and fairly cold temperatures, but absolutely hate the wind. They seem to love being able to range freely under the cover of trees, as we saw when we visited the main turkey farm. As it was a very windy day, most of the birds were either huddling in the barn or in the woodland nearby.

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For farmers, the advantage is that they may be able to raise free range turkeys on wooded areas of their properties that are not suitable for other types of farming.

 

Lunch Time

After our visit to the turkeys, it was time for lunch.

Paul mentioned that one of the problems they face, when trying to show people who think they don’t like turkey – people just like me – how good it can be, is that the cooking times recommended by many supermarkets and suppliers are simply too long and lead to an already poor quality bird drying out and becoming even more tasteless. Turkey is far less forgiving of being overcooked than most meats. The Kelly Bronze turkeys are sold with cooking instructions and a meat thermometer to ensure that they are not over cooked.

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Paul has won turkey carving competitions (who knew?!) during which he was challenged to carve a turkey neatly, into a given number of exactly equal portions of both white and dark meat, faster than anyone else. Instead of trying to carve the breast in situ, Paul cleaves the breasts away from the carcass, making it much easier to neatly slice them on the plate. And because Kelly Bronze turkeys have the leg tendons removed during processing, it is easy to carve the dark meat from the legs too.

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Another tip he shared was that, using his recommended cooking method and time, the skin will not achieve the perfect crunch. Leaving the bird in the oven until the skin crisps up will result in an overcooked bird. Instead, he showed us his way round this; he removed the skin in sheets, placing the pieces onto a baking tray and popping them into the oven for a further 15-20 minutes. Sprinkled with salt, these became crunchy morsels of turkey crack!

Once carved, the turkey, already moist and full of juice, was further dribbled with some of the cooking juices from the pan and served with fresh bread, a big bowl of salad and some very good hot cranberry jelly. Made by Jules & Sharpie, it has a mild kick of chilli in it which even I (chilli wuss) really enjoyed.

So what did I think? Well, as I had hoped once I learned more about the impact of breed, farming and processing methods, Paul’s Kelly Bronze turkey tasted wonderful. The meat was full of flavour, not just the dark meat, which is always my favourite part of a bird, but the breast meat too. It was a world away from the cheap mass catering turkey meals I’d been put off by in the past.

Of course, Paul acknowledges that Kelly Bronze turkeys are expensive and, even at Christmas, not everyone can afford them. He recommends buying the best you can afford and then making the most out of it by investing in a meat thermometer to ensure that you don’t over cook it. I would also point out that, per kilo, it’s about the same price as British bone in rib of beef.

As turkey will be on our table this Christmas, I’d love to hear your ideas for great dishes to serve alongside and your best ideas for using leftovers!

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of Kelly Turkey Farms. Thank you for a lovely day.

Oct 262012
 

Aaaah. August! When the sun was shining and the sky was blue… it seems so long ago now…

On the last day of the month, Pete and I were invited to visit a Hop Garden in Kent, and learn more about how hops are grown, harvested and processed before being used to make beer. Our hosts, Shepherd Neame are based in Faversham, and are committed to using British hops as much as possible. They took us for a tour Mockbeggar Farm in nearby Teynham, where owner Tony Redsell showed us around.

You can read more about the visit on Pete Drinks.

For my part, I’d simply like to share some photographs from the day. (Click on individual images to view at larger size).

Out in the fields:

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Stripping hops from the bines:

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Drying the hops:

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Packaging the hops:

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Chatting to owner Tony Redsell and Shepherd Neame’s Head Brewer, Richard Frost:

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Kavey Eats visited Mockbeggar Farm as a guest of Shepherd Neame.

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