Monday, October 7, 2013

A real slice of Bramley apple history!

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to the annual ブラムリーを楽しむ会 / Buramuri wo tanoshimu kai / Bramley apple lunch held by the Japan Branch of the Royal Horticultural Society, Obuse town and the Bramley Apple Research Group - and there had an encounter with Bramley apple history!

Celia Steven, great-granddaughter of Henry Merryweather who was the first person to cultivate and sell the Bramley apple in the UK, was visiting Japan for the first time and attended the event which was lead by Mr Arai – the person who helped bring the first Bramley trees to Japan in tandem with the RHS 23 years ago.

Celia presents Arai-san with a "Southwell time" apple clock

Members of the Bramley Apple Fan Club who were instrumental in forming the connection with descendants of the Merryweather family were also present (see the fan club's report here in Japanese), along with eminent Japanese pâtissiers, food writers and British food and culture enthusiasts.

Celia is very active in the UK in the promotion and education about the Bramley apple and its history and has now also visited Obuse, the first home of Bramleys in Japan. There with the help of local schoolchildren she planted a tree, which will perhaps come to symbolise the growing bond between Obuse in Japan and Southwell in Nottinghamshire, the home of the first ever (and still living!) Bramley tree.

Celia-san, descendant of Henry Merryweather

Greeting the attendees, Celia gave a beautiful speech in Japanese and went on to talk about how warmly she and her family had been received in Japan, by Obuse town, various Bramley friends and even strangers in the street. It was very evident, she said, that the Bramley was very well loved in Japan by people such as the attendees of the lunch who had already encountered it, and that how it is used in all kinds of dishes here demonstrates its versatility and uniqueness as a fruit.

She was eager to take back to the UK and British schools stories of Obuse and Japan’s growing affection for the Bramley apple, to share some of the novel ways it is being used here, and to use the Bramley to strengthen the bond between the UK and Japan through things like activities with schools and cultural festivals.

Arai-san, the man who helped bring Bramleys to Japan

Another guest of honour at the event was Seiko Hirota a director at the RHSJ, who lead the toast resplendent in a Liberty apple patterned outfit. Hirota sensei was involved in the selection of the Bramley apple from among four possible cooking apple choices to be officially introduced to Japan for cultivation.

The toast was poetic, Hirota-sensei spoke of how the apple has been a powerful symbol in stories throughout history - Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, the Judgement of Paris using a golden apple, the poisoned apple of Snow White, and now the Bramley with its unique charm and power to connect people.

Despite this power and ubiquity now in the UK much of the Bramley’s journey to-date feels almost serendipitous. Without the little girl Mary planting pips over 200 years ago, and without Henry Merryweather noticing the fruit they would not be around today in the UK, and without Arai-san wanting to bring the apple to Japan and the RHS selecting it above the competing fruit we would not be able to enjoy them here.

Our Bramley lunch menu, and recipe for the soup

Without further ado here are some of the dishes from the day's Bramley-packed lunch at Tokyo Station Hotel's Blanc Rouge restaurant. The menu was carefully designed so that fans of the Bramley could enjoy it in a variety of incarnations and so that Celia and family could try notes of Japanese cuisine and regional Shinshu produce from Nagano. (Incidentally Tokyo Station, rumoured to have been modeled after Amsterdam central station, has been beautifully renovated to celebrate it's 100th anniversary in 2014 and is well worth a look - and do look up!) :)

The starter was smoked salmon and grilled iwana from Shinshu (Nagano) with a Bramley sauce.

The chilled soup was from the recipe in the photo above, with both cooked and raw bramley prepared with yoghurt and white wine - an amazing taste, it was lovely. The main dish was Normandy style quail with dauphinoise potatoes and Bramley used in the sauce.

The dessert was gyuhi mochi forming a very delicate parcel containing Bramley, dainagon and chocolate, which was quite a unique flavour combination.

I was so excited to be there I'm ashamed to say that I forgot to take photos of the brioche amuse bouche and the wine. I talked so much in fact that I kept holding the waiters up..

After lunch those who wanted to hear more decamped to a small room for continued Bramley banter with Celia and Arai-san.

Decamped to a side room for a bit of post-lunch Bramley banter

Topics that came up included questions to Celia about how Bramleys are used in UK apart from pies and whether British men cook ("roast pork with apple sauce, apple crumble" and "some most definitely do" respectively). We also discussed the current 'Food is Great' campaign of the British Embassy in Japan which appears to be designed to address the troubled reputation of British food here.

Celia also gave top tips on how to judge an apple pie, having judged many competitions herself: "the apples are always great, judge the pastry. There are to be no soggy bottoms" It also became apparent that pie filling bubbling to the top of the pie or crumble is not necessarily seen as a baking failure in the UK as it might be in Japan, but rather gives the dish character.

When I first thrilled at my discovery of Bramley apples in Japan, I knew nothing of their fascinating history in the UK (despite having lived in Nottingham!) or their journey over here and who was involved. Imagine having to come all the way to Japan to learn about my own culture. :)

History, culture, and international relations are vibrantly alive in the Bramley story, and with such passionate advocates on its side we can look forward to see how the next chapter in the Bramley apple’s adventure will unfold (or unpeel? Sorry.. :) ).

Looking into the future... I mean, the ceiling of Tokyo station


  1. Celia StevenOctober 08, 2013

    A day I will not forget, I learned so much, and was honoured, as was my son Thomas and grandaughter Sian, to attend such a lunch, and meet so many wonderful people.
    The lunch itself was an example of what a talented chef can create with the best of ingredients, and of course the world famous cullinary apple, the Bramley

    1. Celia, thank you for the kind comment. It was such a special day. It was wonderful to meet you, Thomas and Sian, and everyone was thrilled to have you all attend. I hope you have the chance to come back to Japan again soon!