Christopher Boddington, who farms in the south-west of France, describes how the French manage the conservation of ancient apple varieties.
Today I went to Puycelsi to buy apple trees for my orchard. I found Janisole, Reinnette blanche de Tanus (a small town not far from here), Blanche d’Espagne, also called Coquette, and Reinette d’Espagne, Pomme poire, Banane d’Hiver, Reale d’Entraigues, and Pomme de l’ile. Although I arrived early, the queue reached the door, and some of my targets, Api-etoile (a ribbed apple like a rounded five point star, which originated in France in the year of the Gunpowder Plot), Royale d’Angleterre (a keeping apple, origin ancient and uncertain), and Teint-frais (a juicing apple with sour flesh) had already sold out. I chose Orangette, tender, acid-sweet and perfumed, Milharanca, a large red and green streaked fruit which keeps till April, Court-pendu gris, which dates back to before Agincourt, and Canino des Clots, a local variety from the Tarn, a pomme à couteau – eaten with a knife.
Puycelsi is a pretty hill village on the Route des Bastides. Surrounded by ramparts and crowned by its spire, it is approached up a long slow hill from the valley. Halfway up is a large wooden shed, home of Le Conservatoire d’espèces fruitières et des Vignes anciennes. The Conservatoire was set up in 1986 by the Prefecture of the Tarn, a department of Midi-Pyrénées in the south-west of France, to safeguard and strengthen the biological heritage of Midi-Pyrénées, consisting of varieties of fruit trees and vines grown locally, many of very ancient origins. The Conservatoire is supported by the regional government and the National Institute of Agronomic Research.
The objects of the Conservatoire, which is one of several established across France, are to safeguard the genetic diversity of the local plant species threatened by extinction, to evaluate and identify the varieties collected and to promote the regional biological heritage by educational, cultural, economic and scientific programmes. They currently have six hectares of orchard with 550 (yes five hundred and fifty) varieties of apples, 90 of pears, 50 of plums, 30 of cherries, 50 of peaches and 115 of vines. I have a small field, about two hectares, and have gradually been creating an orchard. I have planted about 50 trees over the last fifteen years. About half are fruit trees including about a dozen varieties of apple trees and a few each of pears, quinces, cherries, persimmons and plums., including mirabelles and greengages (reine claude), all of which do well here in the Tarn, also some peaches and apricots, which do less well as earlier blossom makes them vulnerable to our usual flash of late frost. The rest are mostly nut trees, including walnuts, almonds and hazel and a small grove of truffle-oaks, which are all slowly coming to maturity. There are also a couple of small copses of wild blue plums, mirabelles, green figs and sloes.
Each year the Conservatoire has a two day sale of ancient varieties which opens at 9 on the Saturday morning. I was told that when the staff arrived at 8.30 this morning the yard was already full of hopeful buyers, so next year I shall be there at eight!