French take bite out of British apple market

A French apple is threatening to do something Napoleon Bonaparte never achieved -- stage a cross-channel invasion and defeat the British on their home ground.

Indeed, the campaign is already hotting up as the first of tens of thousands of tons of Golden Delicious apples enter Britain from France, head for fruitshops and supermarkets, and prepare to do battle with local defenders. Orchardists in Kent and other English countries are bracing themselves against the challenge, hopeful that the countervailing forces they can throw into the balance will not be too little and too late.

That there should be any battle at all is something the apple growers of Britain have found difficult to accept. For decades they produced apples prized by the housewife and enjoyed by families across the land.

The Cox's Orange Pippin, king of apples, reigned supreme. The British munched it happily year in, year out, sparing not a thought for what the French were plotting across the water.

Then came 1973 and Britain's entry into the Common Market. Suddenly French apples began appearing in the shops, jolting local varieties to the core.

In the last decade the English apple crop has diminished by 150 tons. French apples have been cascading in to replace them.

The Golden Delicious led the invasion. Last year 250,000 tons of them assaulted the terrority of King Cox. At least as many will take the same route this year. Appeals by English orchardists for government help have not been effective. Cox's Orange Pippins, aided by Bramleys, Worcesters, Russets, and othe lesser varieties, are being expected to secure their own defenses.

The French believe it will be an unequal struggle, for the Golden Delicious has one big advantage: More and more Britons are prepared to welcome the invader with open mouths.

Ironically, the Golden Delicious is an American apple. It came from the United States to Algeria as part of a postwar aid scheme. When Algerian growers moved to France after independence they took cuttings with them.

The apple quickly made its point with the French. It is large, uniform in shape, attractive to the eye, and hardy. It travels well and keeps for over a year.

Golden Delicious trees fruit abundantly and their apples are relatively cheap. Very soon the golden Delicious, boosted by a massive "le crunch" advertising campaign, dominated the French market. It began looking for new fields to conquer. Britain, its frontiers opened by the Treaty of Rome, looked a good place to go.

Suddenly the British came to realize that their own apples had limitations. The Cox apple fruits late in the year and does not keep for long. It varies greatly in size and adopts eccentric shapes. Because its trees are relatively "shy bearers" it is expensive compared with the Golden Delicious.

All this tended to swing the British housewive's affections toward the french invader.

At first, discouraged local growers began tearing out their apples trees and planting other types of fruit. now they are beginning to fight back. Some are answered by the fact that the French are reluctant to import British lamb. Others have watched as British cheeses, under challenge from French Camembert and other cross-channel varieties, met the invaders head-on and successfully forced them to give ground.

This summer British apple growers are mounting a publicity campaign on behalf of their product, with stress on one crucial point. By wide consent the Cox's Orange Pippin is nicer to eat than the Golden Delicious. it is crisper and more flavorsome.

As one waggish orchardist declared: "Certainly, the Golden Delicious is the napoleon of apples. It is extremely well organized, it is out to conquer Europe , and it is almost entirely lacking in taste." Whether flavor will be the saving grace of the beleaguered British apple has yet to be proved. But the orchardists of Britain are determined to roll back the invader.

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