Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Field Trip! – Obuse, the Bramley apple's Japanese home

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Obuse for the first time, right in the middle of Bramley season.
I participated in a tour organised by the Japan Branch of the Royal Horticultural Society in cooperation with Obuse-ya, which was to take us to try out all kinds of Bramley-based cuisine, see the picturesque town of Obuse and pay a visit to the Bramley orchard itself and meet the current farmer (nurseryman?).

This post is all about the apples themselves, I’ll write more about Obuse town (it is lovely) and the rest of the tour in a follow-up article.

Bramley apples are a type of cooking apple. Britain is reported to be the only country that cultivates apples specifically for cooking. Bramleys accounted for 91% of the UK cooking apple market in 1989 and is possibly now 95% (data unverified), which was 4% of the total UK apple market in 2012.

It’s probably safe to say that they are now the most well known and loved of all apples in the UK when it comes to making apple pie. As I wrote previously upon my first happy discovery of Bramleys in Japan, they make a completely different type of pie compared with those made with dessert apples.

Bramleys are very tart if eaten raw (they are rarely eaten raw in England - we were always told not to as children), but when cooked the flavour mellows and, even with the added sugar used in most recipes, the final taste retains a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness. Another characteristic feature is that they cook into a puree rather than the slices holding their shape or becoming dry and chewy.

It was the unique taste that impressed Arai-san during a trip to England and that moved him to work with the Royal Horticultural Society to bring the trees to Japan 23 years ago. The first fruit was grown in Obuse, Nagano.

Nearby the orchard in the hills of Obuse

Up in the hills of Obuse 600 meters above sea-level the air is markedly cooler than around the station, and about 10 degrees cooler than it was in Tokyo on the day I visited. By the time we left it was positively brisk – a homely climate for a British apple.

Looking towards the Bramley corner

The trees in the Bramley corner of the orchard were unexpectedly short, we stooped and weaved under the branches towards a group of crates pulled into a circle in a clearing. It might be the distortion of memory or my comparative smallness at the time, but I seem to remember our Bramley trees towering over us at the bottom of our childhood garden.

Thanks to extensive planting throughout the early 1900's, many British families have a Bramley apple tree in their garden or know someone who does and who wants help using up their glut of apples in October - at least this was the case when I was growing up in the North of England. Even if you didn't have your own supply you can get the fruit inexpensively at most British supermarkets, especially in the Autumn.

It turns out that their height, and many other aspects of how the trees have been cultivated in Obuse are deliberate choices to improve yield and quality in the Japanese growing context. For example Japan, even the cool hills of Obuse, is sunnier than the UK and so shade is created by crowding the canopy of the low-slung trees together somewhat, shielding most of the apples from direct sunlight to keep them a deep green colour rather than them turning blush-red in the sun.

Stouter trees apparently give a better yield, as evidenced by the boughs heaving with fruit despite some already having been harvested. Again, the un-managed garden trees from my childhood could not compete with the Obuse trees in terms of output.

So many Bramleys!

Another difference was that many of the Obuse apples are as big as your hand – when the fruits start to form earlier in the year they remove 4 out of the 5 buds in each cluster, thinning out the apples to leave a ‘king fruit’ intact to grow to its full size potential – something we certainly never did with our trees at home! Even when you buy them from the supermarket in the UK they tend to be on the small-side compared to many of these Obuse apples.

For all their culinary glory, Bramleys can be a bit of a dumpy-looking, bobbly fruit. In the UK they often come in various sizes and are not too pretty – they are for cooking after all.

Having received perfect, huge and unblemished Bramleys in the last couple of years from both Obuse in Nagano and Hokkaido I had wondered if perhaps their cultivation in Japan had involved the careful practice of wrapping each fruit in paper as it grew on the tree (something I've seen for grapes, melons and oranges here), but this didn't appear to be the particular method used here. In any event, Japan is well-known for extremely careful and labour-intensive farming practices that produce perfect-looking fruit, and their Bramleys are no exception - they were prize-winning fruits. (Below, my order fresh from Obuse.)

Sat in the crate-circle having our Bramley-themed snacks and exchanging Bramley-themed recipe tips with other participants on the tour, the slightly musty smell of the orchard reminded me of my old garden. I'm still trying to decide whether I think the Japanese Bramleys are slightly less tart than the British ones, but need to try one from home again to compare. ;) (Incidentally, it appears that some of the tartest Bramleys are currently grown in County Armagh in Northern Ireland.)

We met Oshima-san the farmer who talked about how he and his wife came to manage the orchard 3 years ago and how they are learning the pleasures and idiosyncrasies of the Bramley. He explained the different tasks involved in caring for Bramley apple trees throughout the year and said it was often hard to spot all the fruit compared to other apples at harvest time because the Bramleys are so well camouflaged in the green.

It was interesting to see how Bramley stock had been grafted onto pre-existing trees so that mature, thick-trunked trees could bear so much fruit so quickly, despite only having been cultivated here in Japan for just over 20 years.

White material shows where a graft was made

Oshima-san's talk was punctuated by soft sounds of ‘fudunk.... fudunk’ as here and there an oversized apple released its hold on the branch and fell to the ground.

I had previously been surprised to learn that there is a known original Bramley tree, and that it is still alive and producing fruit in Southwell, Nottinghamshire.

The story is that a little girl named Mary Ann Brailsford took seeds from apples her mother was preparing in the kitchen and planted them in pots. One of the seeds successfully germinated and was transferred to the garden. Many years later a Mr. Mathew Bramley owned the cottage and agreed to let Henry Merryweather, son of a local nurseryman, sell some of his apples under the condition they bore his name - the fruit were named 'Bramley's Seedling' apples, now shortened to Bramley. (Lots more interesting detail on the history here.)

All existing Bramley trees are from "grafted cuttings of grafted cuttings taken over many generations" (interesting article) starting from that original tree and diversifying over time. In 2009 the tree passed its 200th birthday and is being protected against disease in its old age with the help of Nottingham Univeristy scientists and groundsmen. The scientists have also cloned the Southwell tree to preserve the exact original taste (thanks to its higher vitamin C levels) and quality of fruit that captured the interest of Henry Merryweather in 1856.

Celia Steven (née Merryweather), great-granddaughter of the nurseryman, continues to promote Bramleys and has even had to fight for the preservation of the fruit in the UK when EEC regulations appeared to threaten their future in the 1970's. In a wonderful turn of events for Bramleys in Japan, Celia and family will visit Japan and the Obuse orchard later this year!

From Henry Merryweather almost 200 years ago to Arai-san over 20 years ago, the unique flavour of the Bramley apple continues to charm people who have the chance to try it, first in the UK and now increasingly throughout the world.

Two apples I picked myself at the orchard :)


  1. What a lovely story. I'll be on the lookout to see if I can find this type of apple in Pennsylvania.

  2. I'm sure you'll be able to find Bramleys somewhere - there's an interesting post about someone finding them in California in the link below, but the links to orchards in the comments of that post aren't all current.


    Best of luck!

  3. Very funny piece :) I am hoping one of our farmer's market vendors in the city might have them. They have many varieties! The season is almost upon us and I'll start looking. There is one vendor who has four kinds of nashi, too, which I was surprised to see. My kids love them for fresh eating, such a treat.