This post's for Petoskystone, a welcome regular who asked why Bramleys are the only British apple she'd heard about when I published February's diary a few days ago. As it's also National Bramley Week, now seemed a good time to respond.
What I didn't make clear earlier is that Bramley is a cooking apple and yes, it's pretty well the only apple available for these purposes, making up 95% of sales. There are plenty of other varieties, but they're mainly grown for private consumption. In terms of overall varieties (cooking, dessert and cider), the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale has over 2,000 of them, so Bramleys aren't the only British apple by a long chalk. Sadly most of them aren't for sale in the shops - a quick check locally on Monday revealed Bramley's, Cox's, Egremont Russets and Braeburn are on sale: there were other varieties available (NB including Washington Red Delicious, Petoskystone as well as Royal Gala, Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Granny Smiths, Pink Lady and Fuji), but they were all imports.
Why are Bramleys so popular? I haven't got to the bottom of that one fully as there are plenty of other excellent cookers around. It's a sharp fruit, full of flavour and cooks down to a pulp, so is good in many of our cooked apple dishes. It also crops and stores well, which means it's pretty much available year round. The Bramley apple industry is now worth £50m per year, involving commercial growers across Kent, East Anglia and the West Midlands.
Its history's also interesting and has had a hand in its success: pips planted in 1809 in Southwell near Nottingham grew into a handsome tree bearing fruit by 1823. In 1846, a local butcher Matthew Bramley bought the cottage plus garden housing the tree and 10 years later a local nurseryman asked if he could taking cuttings from the tree. Bramley said he could but insisted the apple should bear his name – thus Bramley's Seedling was born.
The cuttings were nurtured until 1862, when the first trees were sold to Upton Hall, a local stately home. Fruits of the grafted apple were first exhibited before the Royal Horticultural Society's fruit committee in 1876 and nine years later Bramley's Seedling received a first class certificate at the Royal Jubilee Exhibition of Apples in Manchester. So a combination of early patronage and exhibiting at a time when interest in apples was at its height in England set the apple up on the road to success. In the early 1900s many Bramley trees were planted and their fruit was a useful food source during WWI. The original tree however blew down in 1900, survived somehow and still bears fruit to this day. Cuttings are being taken from this tree and are marketed as 'original' Bramley's Seedlings.
There's a strong marketing body who'll be co-ordinating the bicentennial celebrations. This link showcases lots of recipes using the Bramley apple as a main ingredient. I'll be using the pictured apples in the latest version of my windfall cake :)