In 1868, British-Australian orchardist Maria Ann Smith “tipped out [the] last of some apples brought back from Sydney”. Later, she spotted a small seedling growing amongst the compost and nurtured it. When the little tree eventually bore fruit, their flavour – despite the waxy, vivid green skin – was sweet and juicy and an instant hit with everyone who tasted them: the world famous Granny Smith apple had arrived.
Originally born in Peasmarsh in Sussex, England in 1799, Smith immigrated to New South Wales in Australia in 1838. There, her husband Thomas found work in the fruit-growing district around Ryde, now a suburb of Sydney. The couple bought a 24-acre plot of land on which they grew fruit for sale in the nearby Sydney market – where Smith also developed a reputation for her fruit pies.
When the Smiths set up business in Australia, the country’s first apple tree hadn’t long been in the ground. Captain Arthur Phillip is said to have planted one of the first specimens in Port Jackson, later the city of Sydney, in 1788. In the same year, Captain William Bligh is credited with introducing the fruit to Tasmania, when he moored his ship the Bounty in Adventure Bay. There the ship’s botanist, Dr Nelson, planted three apple seedlings and several pips and the fruit trees flourished. Tasmania became known as the Apple Isle and the apple-growing tradition continues today, largely in the southerly Huon district where cider is now made.
Thought to be a cross of a domestic apple and a French Crab crabapple (which explains the waxy skin and its ability to keep for long periods), the Granny Smith soon found favour (initially as “Smith’s seedling”), and was cultivated and spread both in Australia and beyond. Thanks to its ability to be transported over vast distances with little impact on flavour, the Granny Smith took hold and by 1975 the shiny green fruit accounted for more than 40 per cent of Australia’s apple crop.
Today, it is grown in warmer climates and, thanks to its thick skin and easy temperament, has come to stand as a byword for the apple in fruit bowls around the world. Each October the Granny Smith Festival attracts more than 80,000 people to Eastwood, Smith’s home in Ryde.
The Granny Smith has also captured the hearts and imaginations of artists and musicians. In 1966, the Belgian artist René Magritte for whom the fruit was something of a muse, painted a crisp green Granny Smith over which he scrawled “au revoir” (goodbye) – an oblique reference to the Garden of Eden. By the following year, the painting was hanging in the house of musician Paul McCartney, thanks to art dealer Robert Fraser.
“One day he brought this painting to my house,” McCartney has said. “It just had written across it ‘Au revoir,’ on this beautiful green apple. This big green apple, which I still have now, became the inspiration for the logo.” The Beatles’ new punningly titled company Apple Corps was born, and the band’s records featured a picture of a Granny Smith in the centre with the inside of the apple exposed on the B-side.
Although the Granny Smith is a good eating apple, providing a satisfying crunch and a hit of acid before a rush of juicy sweetness, it is most often favoured as the perfect pie apple, holding its shape well and giving a balance of sweet and sour that sits well within a crisp crust of pastry or crumble topping. Granny Smith would have approved.