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English Apples Fight French for Market

ENGLISH apple farmers are calling it Le Crunch and say their French rivals are shocked to the core.

After years of retreat in the face of cheap French-supplied apples, local growers are responding with a determined drive to hurl back the invaders by putting on supermarket shelves varieties of apple with names only our grandparents can remember.

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They have been boosted by some discreet help from Charles, Prince of Wales, heir to the English throne.

Laid out in London shops this past Christmas to compete with Golden Delicious from orchards in Normandy, France, were examples of Laxton Superb, Chivers Delight, Michaelmas Red, Sleeping Beauty, and dozens of other strains grown in England.

This reporter discovered that Chivers Delight is a sweet and juicy apple with a golden skin. Kidd's Orange Red is a small, crisp, and firm fruit. Spartan, another sweet apple, is purple.

Shoppers, who spend some 550 million British pounds ($1 billion) a year on apples, had been warned in television advertisements to expect a determined drive by local growers to wrest back a market that a decade ago seemed to have been permanently captured by Gallic interlopers. What they had not appreciated was the huge array of ammunition available for the counterattack.

At Brogdale Farm, a horticultural research center in Kent, more than 2,500 apple varieties are still grown. Of these, Marks and Spencer, a large supermarket chain, offered customers 18 types during the holiday season. A company executive said most were selling well. "Customers like choice, and for some time there has been a feeling that the range of apples available was far too narrow. Nobody can complain about that now."

Nobody, that is, except the French, who made a lunge for the English apple trade when Britain 10 years ago opened its market to the European Community. At that time they saw a poorly organized English apple industry producing a tiny range of types - largely Granny Smith, Cox's Orange Pippin, and Bramley, a reliable variety of cooking apple. Within three or four years French growers succeeded in making Golden Delicious Britain's best-selling apple. Ironically, the same variety is not highly regarded in Fr ance.

David Pennell, director of Brogdale Farm, recalls that French growers at the time were "better organized and able to provide a standardized product at a highly competitive price." This enabled them to make a deep penetration in the British market, using supermarkets as points of entry.

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For many consumers, however, an unrelieved diet of Golden Delicious was boring.

Enter, in the mid-1980s, the Prince of Wales. A dedicated environmentalist and advocate of healthy eating, he is a supporter of Common Ground, a heritage charity. Charles learned that Brogdale Farm, then run by the Ministry of Agriculture, might have to close. He also recalled that Brogdale was just a few miles away from Teynham, site of orchards owned by his ancestor King Henry VIII. Charles' imagination was fired. The prince is credited by industry sources with helping to arrange financing for the purc hase of Brogdale Farm from the government and relaunching it as a commercial enterprise.

With help from English Apples and Pears, a promotional group formed in 1987, Common Ground then approached Marks and Spencer and other supermarket chains and identified some 750 apple growers whom the Brogdale researchers knew had traditional varieties available. In 1990 the first English Apple Day was held, with promotional events in many parts of Britain.

The result in 1991 was a flood of English apples onto the market. Safeway, with 45 varieties, and J. Sainsbury, with 38, have outdistanced Marks and Spencer in variety of types on offer. A Safeway executive said it was too early to decide how much of the pre-Christmas apple trade had been recaptured from the French, but a visit to several London supermarkets suggested that up to one-fifth of the apples offered for sale were old-fashioned English varieties.

Said Peter Barton, apple merchandiser for Marks and Spencer: "I think we can definitely say the English apple is back."

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