Sometimes, Nottingham’s history can lead you down unexpected rabbit holes. This is one of them. Stretching from a young lady’s garden in the 1800s to the suburbs of modern-day Japan, right into a utopian future straight out of science fiction, this is the story of Nottingham’s most successful fruit: the Bramley apple.
Our journey begins in Southwell during the early nineteenth century. In 1809, a pip planted by Mary Ann Brailsford grew into a tree that bore strange fruit. The apples were large, hardy and sour, which drew the attention of seventeen-year-old Henry Merryweather, a local gardener and nurseryman who offered to take cuttings from the tree and cultivate them in his own nursery. As Brailsford had sold the property and the original tree to her son-in-law Bramley, Merryweather was asked to name the new breed in the lad’s honour.
Merryweather became a bit of a celebrity in the world of agriculture, with his stock of apple seedlings going on to become an immediate success. The apples received an award of merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1876, and in a 1914 volume of The Garden, it’s noted that “there is scarcely an organisation in and around Southwell that has not benefited by his presence.”
Merryweather was very much enamoured, describing his apple stock as “beautiful” and “very fine” in his notes. It’s clear the man felt an enormous kinship with his stock; in 1893, he claimed to have “known this splendid apple [for] forty years” and spoke to Brailsford’s son-in-law Bramley on many occasions about how the original tree birthed the “finest apple ever produced.” These days, Henry Merryweather’s great grandson Roger organises an annual Bramley apple festival to continue the apple love.
In 2015, the Bramley apple was given protected status by the European Commission as a pie filling. A staple of sauces, jams, chutneys and crumbles, its tangy flavour and versatile usage has seen it shipped all over, and it’s this global success that takes us down perhaps the most unexpected burrow in this particular rabbit hole: The Bramley Apple Fan Club, based out of Japan.
Mr Arai, the first chairman of the Royal Horticultural Society in Japan, discovered the apple baked into a pie in a London restaurant. For Arai, it was a game changer. Born on an apple farm, Arai was used to more conventional Japanese apples like the Fuji; naturally sweet, shapely, and red. Here he met an apple radically different to anything he’d known, and fell in love. Just as Merryweather saw potential in those first few cuttings of the original tree, Arai believed that the Bramley apple would revolutionise Japanese horticulture. The RHS sent through cuttings of their own Bramley stock and within a few years the apple was thriving within Japan.
“Japanese apple farmers had been facing many of the same problems as farmers in the UK,” says Kimi Mizuno, a spokesperson for the Bramley Apple Fan Club and one of its founding members. “Too much work, not enough pay, ageing farmers and fewer people able to work in the industry. We believe the Bramley apple may help. Some bakeries have even started using it as their first apples of the season, and many people are learning more about apples and other kinds of fruits through the Bramley.”
It took a while for the apple to catch on in Japanese cuisine; as Kimi says, the Bramley was viewed as a cheap, low quality apple: “British apple pie was a big culture shock! It’s so different to what we have here.” Eventually, the fan club were able to challenge the Bramley’s reputation in Japan and, with the help of the British Embassy, the apple soon became a key ingredient in Japanese cuisine. It kick-started Japan’s hard cider boom and was introduced by more experimental Japanese chefs as a central part of curries, sushi and even pizza.
The fan club, founded in 2006 by Kimi and her colleagues Sachiko Enomoto and Yumiko Fujiwara, seeks to spread the love for this humble apple across Japan and the world at large. “When we started the blog, we promised three things,” Kimi tells me. “Do not compare, do not criticise, do not deny.”
As the Royal Horticultural Society of Japan has since disbanded, the Bramley Apple Fan Club has become something of a passion project for Kimi and her fellow apple enthusiasts. “We love plants and we run the fan club as a hobby,” she says. “It must seem strange to you because in the UK these apples are as common as potatoes, but the taste, smell, and texture were so different from any kinds of apples we have in Japan.”
The Bramley's reputation is such that, in 2012, apple enthusiasts from Obuse visited Southwell to see the original tree. Apple producer and deeply passionate Bramley fan Hiroki Tomioka told the BBC at the time, “I’m trying to popularise the Bramley apple in Japan. I’m so impressed with the tree, I nearly cried.”
During their trip, these apple advocates even went on to meet with Celia Stevens, the great-granddaughter of Henry Merryweather and avid Bramley historian. “I’ve been successful in encouraging the fan club to visit Britain on two occasions,” Celia says. “I’ve enjoyed showing them what we have here, and the apple’s history. That includes the history of Nottingham, and its wider implications; after all, the Bramley apple has spread far and wide.”
When I mentioned that I’d made contact with Celia, Kimi tells me that “Celia-san is my engine. She inspires me to keep going.” The fan club has also worked extensively with Nottinghamshire’s cultural scene, making appearances at Roger Merryweather’s annual Bramley Apple Festival and championing the fruit’s spread worldwide.
Nottingham Trent University are buying the first tree, as well as the cottage once owned by Bramley: “If all goes through as planned,” Nottingham Trent University representatives stated in October 2017, “horticulture staff and students from the university’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences would carry out an initial assessment of the tree. They would then set about carefully tending it with the aim of prolonging its life.” Celia Stevens says she’s also “naturally keen to support any action to preserve the heritage that goes with this famous and well-loved tree, which is in desperate need of care.”
Professor Robert Mortimer, the Dean of Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, says the original tree will “inevitably perish due to disease” but increasingly advanced methods will help the tree’s future to be a long and healthy one. In 2009, Professor Ted Cocking of the University of Nottingham used tissue cultures to create clones of the tree, twelve of which now thrive in the University’s Millennium Garden. In 2009, Cocking said: “Being able to clone the original Bramley apple tree is a wonderful example of how plant biotechnology has helped us to preserve, for ourselves and future generations, what was a gift of nature.”
From its roots as a young girl’s hobby, to its rise to fame as Japan’s favourite delicious dark horse, all the way to its position as the fruit of the future, the humble Bramley apple is a perfect example of the county’s continued and unforeseen influence on the world at large. So the next time you tuck into an apple pie or dollop a spoonful of Bramley sauce on your pork chops, take a little time to savour it. After all, it’s come a long way.