Apples have been grown in Ireland for at least 3000 years. Indeed, St. Patrick is said to have planted a number of apple trees in Ireland, including one at Ceangoba, a settlement close to where Armagh is now situated. Early monastic records tell us that the monks were given apples with their meals, especially at festival times. The Brehon laws (originating between 2000 and 1000BC) stipulated that anyone cutting down an apple tree would be subject to a severe penalty; namely a fine of five cows, and even removing a limb or branch would warrant a fine of some sort.
Nowadays the oldest apple variety widely planted in Ireland is the Bramley’s Seedling, or Bramley for short. This is the apple that we all use (or should use) for cooking. The original tree was planted 199 years ago, and is still alive and well. This apple was first cultivated widely in Ireland in the late 1880’s, and has become more and more popular in the intervening years. Some trees dating from around that time still stand in commercial orchards in Ireland today, and if you are eating a Bramley pie anytime soon, it is quite possible that the apple has come from a tree in excess if 100 years old.
The reasons that Bramley’s became so popular are manifold. From the viewpoint of the gardener, Bramley is an easy apple to grow, is disease and pest tolerant, producing a good crop of apples almost every year, without attracting too many birds or wasps, as the fruit is sharp-tasting. From the cook’s perspective, this sharpness or acidity is also a great quality. When cooked, the natural fruit acids help break down the apple into a delicious fluffy texture. The acidity also balances the sweetness of the pastry and any sugar that is added, meaning that the flavour is never over-sweet. Add to this the large size of the apple which makes peeling easy, and you can see why this apple became so popular in the kitchen. Lastly, from the standpoint of the modern grower, Bramley’s are good hard apples that can be kept in refrigerated cold-stores, meaning that they can be sold for a long period.
About 1/3 of the World’s supply of Bramley’s is grown in Ireland, and it is the only apple nowadays available for the sole purpose of cooking. It has certainly come a long way in 199 years, so why not raise a glass (of cider), accompanied by a treat made with Bramley’s, to 199 more.