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“Our tastes have become sweeter due to the hamburger culture”

Belgian retailer Colruyt recently introduced two new apple varieties, which will be grown exclusively for them by various Belgian growers. Agreements were first reached for the variety Coryphée with breeding station Zouk. We spoke to Johan and Vincent Nicolai from Boomkwekerij Nicolai and breeding station Zouk about the future of the apple world.

Colruyt was looking for an expansion of the Belgian supply. “Of pears, the shelves are mostly stocked with domestic product. Unfortunately, for apples only 60 per cent is of Belgian origin. So there’s quite a bit of room left. Colruyt wanted something with a higher margin, and besides, they wanted to distinguish their position from other retailers. They are responsible for royalties, buy the entire harvest, and ensure shelf space. Ideal for the growers, because someone else is now also sharing the risks. The apples have been extensively tested by Colruyt’s taste panel for appearance and flavour. The Coryphée has a good texture, is wonderfully crunchy and has an increased resistance to scabs and powdery mildew. The first commercial harvest is expected to be in 2020.”

Supermarkets directly approaching agriculturalists is relatively new. “The apple won’t arrive for another three years, so it’s unique that they’re getting into the process this early. We are approached by retail more and more often. This manner of working is the future. We are currently also in talks with other supply chains. The beauty of this concept is that there’s a certain structure in which all of the links benefit from the variety. That way, everyone contributes in the field of quality as well, and a great product is brought to the consumer.” He indicates exclusivity cannot remain unlimited. “Coryphée is supplied exclusively to Colruyt until 2027, after that time, third parties can also buy it.” Johan doesn’t think negatively about club varieties, but he does have doubts. “Most of the existing varieties are doing well, but I wonder if wholesalers would have another club variety enforced on them. What is the added value for retail? Margins are often underestimated, they’re not really that high. That’s why supermarkets start looking for something with which they can create an added value.”

Monoculture Jonagold
According to Johan, it’s a good step in the direction of diversity in fruit cultivation. “We have to let go of Jonagold’s monoculture, that’s a closed chapter. Many growers who switch to another product, don’t switch to a new variety. They want harvest guarantees, and they’ll mostly get that from Conference. For years, the fruit cultivation focused on well-known varieties, and they haven’t ‘heard’ the developments and demand from the market. They thought that consumers would remain satisfied with just Conference. It’s not a criticism of the growers, but it could’ve looked so wonderful. Many growers think only of the short term, while they should be looking at the fruit revolutions of ten to fifteen years. There’s currently a need for new local apples, because most of the apples now in supermarkets come from abroad.” According to him, Belgians could be a bit more chauvinistic. “We  could use the UK as an example. They have also had that pressure from import apples, and the domestic market was close to dying. Fortunately, they recovered, and Gala and Braeburn are now two of the fastest growing varieties marketed under ‘by British.’ France also leads in the principle of ‘own product first.’ Despite those growers also being competitors, they work closely together, and they make clear agreements about who grows what. It would be good if that were also to happen here. Concepts like that are very strong. It’s an opportunity for our growers to focus more on good, domestic varieties.”

The search for ideal apple varieties continues. “It takes time. We’re headed for varieties with an increased resistance for multiple diseases. Besides, we’re evolving to low or zero residue use. When improving seeds, we pay attention to weather circumstances, new varieties will be more resistant to it. Additionally, growers have to want to invest in certain things, such as hail netting.” Another aspect that will be important in future is allergies, according to Johan. “More and more people are allergic to certain apples, so we should keep that in mind.” Whether we’ll have more apples with red flesh remains to be seen. “Up till now, none of the varieties with red flesh have been good enough. They were all marketed too soon, and should have remained on the sidelines. One apple we think has a lot of potential is Greenstar. It’s not really a big grower yet, but there are many opportunities for that. An apple that doesn’t oxidises and has not been genetically modified, it’s ideal. Because of these positive characteristics, Greenstar has been used as one of the parents in our cross-breeding programme. A successful descendant of this programme is ZOUK16. This is a pink apple, which is just as productive as Greenstar, with non-oxidising white flesh.”

Demand market   
The tree-nurseryman sees that the top fruit market is purely a supply market in Belgium at the moment. “But it should become a demand market. The consumer has to taste the apple, be satisfied with it, and be able to buy it again blindfolded. They shouldn’t be disappointed. Supplying the same flavour as a standard year-round would be best. The development of new varieties is going increasingly faster. The tastes of the consumers also change all the time, so we have to keep up with that. Regarding flavour, preferences can still be seen for sour and sweet, but we have noticed sweet is gaining the upper hand. Northern Europe still appreciates a freshly sour taste, but the further south, the sweeter the preference. Our tastes have become sweeter due to the hamburger culture in recent years, for that matter. Everything is based on sugar nowadays.”


Publication date: 9/12/2017


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