If you had to name a fruit that is quintessentially British, it would have to be the apple. And since it is harvesting season at Leckford Estate and The Waitrose Farm in the Hampshire countryside, I went down to take photos, pick apples, and eat them of course!
For some background, Leckford Estate was bought by the founder of the John Lewis Partnership, John Spedan Lewis, in 1929. In 2001, Leckford Estate became part of Waitrose, which is also owned by the John Lewis Partnership, and became the Waitrose Farm.
Waitrose was the first supermarket to plant a vineyard and the Leckford Brut vintage fizz is the result of the harvest of this. In October, the grapes will be harvested for the sparkling wine, which is then crafted at premier English wine estate, Ridgeview. It is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes.
The 4,000-acre estate grows and produces a wide range of items for Waitrose branches and the Leckford Farm Shop, including milk, mushrooms, apples, pears, cider, apple juice, flour, and grapes for our Leckford Estate sparkling wine.
Leckford focuses on sustainable agricultural methods and it has been a LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) demonstration farm since 2004.
The orchards are 13 hectares and are home to four varieties of apples ( Braeburn, Bramley, Cox and Gala) and three varieties of pears - Conference, Comice and Concord. They have around 13,000 fruit trees and harvest around 250 tons of fruit per year using about 20 people who spend four weeks harvesting the fruit. No apple fit for consumption is wasted, by the way; they even sell weather-blemished apples and some also go into juices.
The most abundant variety in the Leckford Orchards is Cox, though other varieties such as Gala and Braeburn have recently increased in popularity too. In Waitrose in general, Gala is the most popular.
The Leckford Estate apples are grown under the careful eye of Colin Pratt, who this year is overseeing the harvest. "I grew up at Leckford and this year's harvest is my 21st,” Pratt says. “My father was the maintenance man and thatcher.”
John Spedan Lewis' decision to plant apples on chalky soil went against traditional thinking but offered unexpected advantages, Colin explains. "The thin soil gives a lower yield, but it also makes the apples really crisp with a great flavor."
Each summer, trees are thinned by hand so the remaining fruit can thrive. "There's plenty to do all year round,” Pratt says. “The wood is pruned over the winter to encourage fruit to grow for the new season, so even when we aren't picking the fruit there's plenty to keep us busy."
"I’ve heard Cox apples called the 'Champagne of apples' and I think that’s about right!" he continues. "The quality and quantity of all our fruit has been improved as we leave hedgerows untrimmed and grow wildflowers in the orchards. This provides a habitat for beneficial insects and creatures to thrive, such as bees which pollinate the trees giving us a better yield."