Review of ‘The Apple Orchard – The Story of Our Most English Fruit’. Pete Brown. Published by Particular Books 2016.
This is a must read for lovers of Apples and Cider. It is also a must read for fans, like myself, of the writings of Peter Brown to whom it will represent a welcome return to form.
Pete is an excellent exponent of the ‘cynical humour’ style of writing best exemplified by the works of Bill Bryson. His best writing is in his wonderful books on beer. After the ‘World’s Best Ciders’, co-written with Bill Bradshaw, this is his second excursion into the world of Cider. Although with a serious undertone it had me laughing out loud on many occasions.
The rather formal title may suggest that this is going to be a perhaps dry and factual exploration of the subject. Although there is plenty of information in there I am relieved to say that it isn’t. It is a story of three journeys.
The underlying one is the journey through the year in an orchard. It is something to do with the magic of the apple that nearly everything worthwhile written about the subject follows the calendar of the annual life cycle. The apple, and the orchard it grows in, is far more than just producing a fruit commodity.
The second journey is the history of the apple – from its origins in the mountains of Kazakhstan to the modern apples of today and the future advances that exploiting our newfound knowledge of DNA will bring. Along the way Pete explores the apple as the driver of man’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden and a lot of other apple imagery around fertility, myth and magic; balancing this with trips to laboratories and commercial orchards both in England and America.
The third journey is the most powerful. The personal journey of self-discovery. One of the features of Pete’s writing is the warmth and depth with which the characters he meets along the way are treated. What is life if it is not the sum of our experiences and the people we live with. He meets some exceptional people in this book. There is quite a strong echo of my 2016 book ‘Finding Good Cider’ where I was exploring not only ‘good cider’ as a product but ‘good cider’ as a concept of a way of life. Though of course Pete’s writing is so vastly superiors to my own!
As the book unfolds and builds towards its climax we meet that world on the edge of an alternative culture where the apple and cider become the core of a muddled world where history, magic, myth and paganism intermingle with accepted reality driven in haze fuelled by the cider. He culminates with a Wassail – a subject about which I have written a length and run not only wassail ceremonies but also give talks examining its origins and past.
Pete’s life journey has similarities in my life – coming to the realisation as to how important all this is. For myself it started with exploring cider in my early teens – drawn to it by the wholesome fact that it came from apples. Through my 20’s, planting my first apple trees and trying my first experiments in making cider. A life time of drinking cider and exploring the many west country producers through to my 50s when I started writing about it and at last, with the help of my son Richard, worked out how to make it. Both of us seem to realise, deep inside, that this is something of fundamental importance to us.
A complementary strand to this is the geography. Although the subject matter is not restricted to it the book keeps inevitably boomeranging back to the West Country – to Herefordshire and Somerset and the adjoining counties. It is the beating heart of the English apple story.
Everyone who has read this far must have sufficient interest in the subject to read this book. A gentle read but you will not be disappointed. Once you have read it and want to read more may I have the cheek to suggest my book ‘Finding good cider’ which can be ordered through www.bittersweetcider.co.uk