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Object lesson No 29

Former prime minister John Major listed warm beer and cricket as quintessentially English. He could have nominated rain, xenophobia and Thermos flasks. And he surely could have mentioned the country's most popular apple - the Cox's Orange Pippin.

This little fruit, now cultivated by more than half the UK's orchards, has roots going back to Tudor times. Henry VIII was on the throne and he had something on his mind. Not the wives, or the Pope, or even Thomas More. What bothered him was the growth in the import of foreign apples. Henry wanted more home-grown fruit sold, but someone had abolished the monasteries where the apple trees grew and mislaid the monks who tended them. So the king was forced to send his fruiterer Richard Harris to France to learn again the lessons of apple cultivation.

Harris brought back more than knowledge. His "great store of graftes", to be planted in the country's first formal orchard at Teynham, Kent, included the Pippins. The French immigrants proved popular - the Golden Pippin remaining so for 200 years until the Ribston arrived.

The Ribston Pippin first appeared at the hall of the same name, near Knaresborough in Yorkshire. I was thought to be a chance seedling grown from some of Harris's original stock. For Victorian connoisseurs it became the best apple to accompany a fine claret. And it was the father of the Cox.

Now you can grow an apple tree from seed, but there is no guarantee that the plant you produce will be the same as the parent. Modern growers "bud" or "graft" apples to ensure a clone of the parent tree. If they want to add to the 4,000 existing varieties they use radiation to mix themselves a new genetic recipe.

However, some of today's top varieties were created accidentally back when nature was in charge of the mixing bowl. Two of these were James Grieve and Worcester Pearmain. A third was Cox's Orange Pippin.

In 1825 Richard Cox, a retired London brewer, is thought to have planted a Ribston pip in his garden at Colnbrook Lawn near Slough. The fruit of this rogue seedling was considered intense yet delicate, a complex blend of many flavours. By the 1920s Cox's Orange Pippin had defeated all other Pippins - including the King, the Summer, the Wyken and the Monstrous - and was being grown commercially. It had truly became the apple of the nation's eye.

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