Last Bite: Cox pipped out by Gala
The British lament a trend towards sweeter and blander food.
Cox’s Orange Pippin is a firm, juicy, full-flavored apple with an orange-red skin and cream-colored flesh.
Photo by Jacqueline King, WSU
Cox’s Orange Pippin—Britain’s favorite apple for 150 years or so—has been usurped by Gala, one of its grandchildren.
It’s not because Gala is a better apple, British journalist Michael Leapman pointed out in an article in The Telegraph last year. The secret to Cox’s long popularity is its intensely aromatic flavor and slight acidity which, to its many devotees, make all other varieties—including Gala—seem bland.
So, why has Cox lost out to Gala?
“The villain of the piece is modern distribution and marketing,” Leapman wrote.
Cox originated in the orchard of Richard Cox, a retired brewer, in Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire, near what is now Heathrow airport. Although the term “pippin” means that the original tree was a chance seedling, Cox is thought to be a cross of Ribston Pippin and Blenheim Orange. It did not become a commercial variety until Charles Turner, an enterprising nurseryman from nearby Slough, began to sell trees in 1850, four years after Mr. Cox died.
Cox soon became Britain’s favorite apple, despite the challenges of growing it, such as susceptibility to scab, mildew, and canker. It seems to thrive in mild, rainy conditions, and some enthusiasts believe that its flavor can only be fully developed in the marginal climate of an English summer.
Warren Manhart, in his book Apples for the Twenty-First Century, related that upon reading that Cox was not recommended for commercial plantings in North America, he set out to discover the reasons why. He planted the variety on Malling 26 rootstocks in heavy clay in his orchard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The trees received inadequate watering, something not well tolerated by the M.26 rootstock, and his first two crops resulted in 85 percent of the apples cracking to the core and rotting.
“That was my first acquaintance with the frustrating genetics of Cox’s Orange—frustrating especially in the first two or three years of fruiting on juvenile trees,” he wrote.
Where nights are cool in September, the variety colors a beautiful orange-red on 25 to 75 percent of the surface, but there can be russet on half of the apple, Manhart found. “However, once it is tasted, the taster cannot remember of the color of the apple. It simply does not matter any more!”
For Leapman, the flavor of Cox represents the essence of the British autumn. “This is in part because we are the only country in the world where the variety can be grown successfully,” he added with unbridled British pride. “Something called a Cox’s Orange Pippin is grown in New Zealand, and appears in British shops during the summer, but it never tastes quite like the real thing.”
Gala is a cross of Kidd’s Orange and Golden Delicious developed in New Zealand, and Kidd’s Orange was a cross of Delicious and Cox. Gala apples were introduced to the U.K. market from New Zealand around 1990. Shortly afterwards, the Gala Club was formed by a group of U.K. growers and advisors who embraced the variety and envisioned that a U.K. Gala could be superior to an imported Gala. Gala has been the U.K.’s best-selling variety—when both imports and home-grown apples are counted—for almost a decade.
Gala can beat Cox on appearance and shelf life, which are what supermarkets want today, Leapman pointed out. It is red, shiny, consistent, and still crisp in April, when most British apples are past their prime.
Adrian Barlow, chief executive of English Apples and Pears, announced last year that Britain’s own growers were now producing more Gala than Cox, with 22,000 tons of Gala sold to U.K. supermarkets versus 21,700 tons of Cox.
“Cox pipped out as our top apple…” was the shocking headline in the Daily Mail.
Barlow said he still considered Cox to be the finest eating apple in the world. “It’s a fantastic apple with a wonderful aroma, and its days are not numbered. It will remain popular for the foreseeable future.
But the Gala has better color and it’s sweeter, and the British have developed a taste for sweeter food.”
In any event, the Cox legacy will continue through its countless offspring. It is a parent of several apples that have been significant in Europe and elsewhere, including Alkemene, Elstar, Fiesta (also known as Red Pippin), Ingrid Marie, Karmijn de Sonneville, Rubens, and Rubinette.