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Feature - ISSUE #9

Slow Fruit

Words by Bernd Brunner

Over the centuries we have lost an estimated 13,000 varieties of apple, along with countless family orchards. The mass market prizes speed and quantity over quality, which is in turn leading to even fewer varieties being available, but this realisation has led to a resurgence in traditional fruit farming, with orchards taking time to nurture a range of flavours and reconnect with the rhythm of the seasons.

Apple harvests used to be a communal activity. Location unknown. (PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY MAUREEN MALONE www.frogtopia.com.au.)

The days when fruit growing primarily meant monks lovingly tending the trees in secluded monastery gardens are long gone. Most of the fruit sold in supermarkets today has never been anywhere near a romantic grove. Instead, it comes from vast plantations that operate more or less like factories, with the goal of producing fruit of consistent size and flavour that stays fresh as long as possible. In many cases, it can even be harvested before it is ripe. We should also remember that, for people outside the tropics, shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables during the winter months and into the spring were commonplace until the middle of the 20th century. Increasing the availability of fresh fruit required long-distance transport and storage in controlled-nitrogen environments that keep it from spoiling. Now many of us have a vast range of choices. For example, although pomegranates don’t ripen in the northern hemisphere until September, consumers there can buy them in the summer, too, because they are flown in from South America to be sold at local supermarkets. Of course, there are additional ecological costs to such a practice.

Much of the fruit for sale today is not even fruitful in the literal sense: just think of all the seedless grapes and mandarins out there. Towering fruit trees with their majestic crowns are also disappearing. Modern farming methods and equipment are designed with more compact-growing varieties in mind, which are easier to tend and bring larger, higher-quality yields. It’s a development that could be described as “dwarfing down”.

If you walk through a modern apple farm, you will see long rows of spindly growths, each with just a single main branch. The apples themselves hang on the short, horizontal limbs that protrude from this central axis. This kind of high-intensity cultivation has nearly nothing in common with the traditional notion of a 19th- or 20th-century orchard. Gardeners in the past cultivated fruit trees to grow on walls, but today the term fruit wall stands for something quite different: a narrow hedgerow formed when trees are planted closely together and pruned mechanically. The point of this exercise is to save space and - thanks to a tractor that prunes the trees - labour, so that the fruit can be brought to market cheaply.

Do methods like these represent the point of maximum fruit-farming efficiency, or are further improvements possible? Anthony Wijcik, of Kelowna in British Columbia, created a sensation in the mid-1960s with a surprising horticultural innovation. His daughter Wendy had discovered a mutation in a 50-year-old McIntosh apple tree: instead of branching into a progressively finer network of limbs and twigs, one of the branches produced fruit directly from short spurs. The “columnar” apple trees produced from this mutation are known as McIntosh Wijciks. Their apples are large and dark red but unfortunately not particularly tasty.

Peach harvest in Greece, 1960. (Photograph BY Jochen Moll, COURTESY Herbert Otto and Konrad Schmidt, Stundenholz und Minarett. Berlin: Verlag Volk und Welt.)

‘Much of the fruit for sale today is not even fruitful in the literal sense: just think of all the seedless grapes and mandarins out there.’

At the East Malling Research Station in Kent, England, the McIntosh Wijcik was bred with a hybrid of the English Cox’s Orange Pippin and the French Court Pendu Plat to produce an ornamental apple tree known as Flamenco or Ballerina. It’s small enough to keep on a balcony, but the apples are relatively susceptible to disease. The next step is the Minarette, which is not a specific variety but rather a style of pruning to keep trees narrow. Slender columnar trees are small enough that a good-sized balcony can accommodate an entire “orchard”.

Other experiments involve hybrids of existing fruit species. The names sometimes take getting used to: aprisali is an apricot/plum mix, while a peacotum combines peach, apricot, and plum. Pluots are mostly plums, genetically speaking, but also contain other elements.

And is the Cosmic Crisp indeed “the most promising and important apple of the future”, as the New York Times announced? In any case, this apple - which was first bred two decades ago at Washington State University - stakes its claim to this title based on its taste and long shelf life, and whole orchards in Washington are now devoted to its cultivation. Two-thirds of the entire US apple harvest is grown in the state of Washington. Recent statistics show that just 15 types of apples account for 90% of this fruit. The ubiquitous Red Delicious occupies the number one spot.

In the past, the situation was quite different. An estimated 17,000 apple varieties were grown in the US over the centuries, but 13,000 have disappeared, along with many of the family-owned orchards that could once be found in nearly every region of the country. “Those who have tasted them speak of them reverently with shining eyes, drawing in their breath with a gasp of keenly remembered delight,” wrote the English author Philip Morton Shand in 1944. He was referring to the Somerset Pomeroy and the Court of Wick, apple varieties that have survived.

Could it really be that every single one of the 17,000 types of apples had a distinctive taste? Maybe not, but surely a host of untold flavour sensations have been lost forever. Large fruit producers tend to concentrate on sweet apples, but appreciation for more complex tasting varieties is on the rise again. The old English varieties Yarlington Mill and Kingston Black are just two examples of apples that offer an interesting mix of tart and sweet notes.

Victorian peach house at West Dean Gardens, Sussex, UK. (Photograph BY BERND BRUNNER).

The British National Fruit Collection has had an eventful history, and at some points was in danger of being eliminated. But it continues to this day, and Brogdale Farm, where it is located, is home to a dizzying array of fruit varieties: 2,200 apples, 550 pears, 285 cherries, 337 plums, 19 quinces, and four medlars, plus 42 types of nuts (primarily hazelnuts). The collection’s experts share their expertise with professional fruit growers. Fruit competitions in a number of places, especially the UK and the US, promote lesser-known fruit varieties. And some research centres hold tastings that allow visitors to identify their personal favourites. For example, John Preece of the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Davis, California, regularly offers an astonishingly wide selection of pomegranate and persimmon samples.

Not only are fruit varieties being saved, but a welcome resurgence of interest in more modest orchards is underway in many countries. Instead of focusing on squeezing the maximum profit from every bit of available land, these gardeners are motivated by the idea of something greater, more meaningful, and even more beautiful that can’t simply be captured in monetary terms.

Germany’s Lower Franconia district in northwestern Bavaria - a region primarily known for its wine - is home to a most unusual orchard, called Mustea. Marius Wittur, the owner, is dedicated to quince trees; specifically, traditionally cultivated varieties that are now in danger of being lost. When I first heard of this orchard, I was amazed that it was possible to find such a range of quince trees at all. But the fruit has become more and more popular in recent years. Perhaps people increasingly appreciate its not-so-sweet taste or are nostalgic for the time when the trees - along with medlars and mulberries - were much more common than they are today. In Portugal, this fascinating fruit is called marmelo, and it was there that I first encountered the quince paste known as marmelada that is cut into slices and eaten with cheese. And while most quinces are far too hard to eat raw, deep-yellow varieties grow in Turkey that you can bite into almost like an apple.

Efforts to recultivate this “lost fruit” are already something to celebrate, but the more I learned about the German project the more interesting it became. For one thing, the trees are grown according to the principles of organic farming. The idea is to concentrate on raising healthy trees rather than generating the largest possible harvest. This means that tree vitality is the goal - and as it increases so does the quality of the fruit. The farm does not even use artificial irrigation.

Cracked-open pomegranates set aside as chicken feed, In an orchard in Ortakent-yahşi near Bodrum, Turkey. (Photograph BY Jane Billinghurst).

‘There are many reasons to celebrate the return of orchards to their rightful place as natural and cultural assets.’

Instead, care for the orchard takes the form of extensive tending of the landscape, based on the belief that the water naturally contained in the earth should determine the fruit’s size and growth. This approach is seen as the only way to concentrate the quince’s aroma in its authentic intensity. Then the idea was added to incorporate grazing animals that eliminate the need to mow the grass under the trees. This gentle method of controlling the undergrowth has many ecological benefits. The Coburg Fox sheep, an old breed that has attracted new attention in recent years, seemed like a good choice: they used to be found in uplands with sparse vegetation that, from a climatological perspective, are similar to Franconia.

The Coburg Fox especially stands apart from the rest of the sheep crowd when it is young: it starts life with wool that ranges in colour from golden yellow to reddish brown. But it shares an advantage common to all of its kind: the storied “golden hoof”. This poetic-sounding term refers to the fact that their hooves allow sheep to tread lightly over the land without significantly compacting the soil. Their tendency to nibble down blades of grass rather than ripping out whole clumps as horses do is also beneficial.

Today, plants and insects that have become rare sights elsewhere have taken up residence in the orchard’s fields. And two praiseworthy endeavours exist in harmony. Quince varieties that were facing extinction are making a comeback, while an ancient breed of sheep thrives and multiplies in the rhythm of the agricultural year. Flora and fauna coexist in a new relationship that points the way to a better future for farming.

Sheep in an orchard in the Kent Downs area, UK. (Photograph Courtesy KENT DOWNS Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.)

There are many reasons to celebrate the return of orchards to their rightful place as natural and cultural assets. The widespread longing for orchards and fruits “like they used to be” surely springs from the fact that so much of our world has been carved up and paved over. Nature has been driven back or destroyed completely and her once-familiar features have faded away. And so orchards where the old trees still stand are considered precious resources. Even trees that have died are sometimes purposefully left in place to create a place for insects, spiders, centipedes, and other tiny creatures to thrive. Wild hedges, piles of branches and stones, and even unused patches of ground provide homes for larger animals like foxes, which pay for their keep by controlling small rodents that might damage the trees’ roots or bark.

And it is not just farmers and orchard operators who are bringing back traditional fruit-growing methods: urban activists are literally taking orcharding to the streets in cities around the world. Dreaming of metropolitan fruit forests, guerrilla grafters splice fruit-bearing scions onto city trees originally bred to be purely ornamental. This practice is technically illegal in some locations because fallen fruit can pose a risk on pedestrian pathways and attract unwanted rodents and insects. It may even be considered vandalism. Guerrilla grafters defend themselves by pointing out that they take care of the trees to make sure they flourish and don’t cause any harm. A “tamer” form of bringing fruit directly to neighbourhoods can be found in the many community or urban orchards that have sprung up in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Vancouver, and others beyond North America.

Here and there traditional celebrations of fruit blossoms are finding new fans who flock to the orchards to remember “the good old days”. Beltane, a festival in Great Britain and Ireland with roots in the distant pagan past, has a special role in building awareness of the year’s recurring cycle in the orchard: it takes place in early May and begins with bonfires of wood from trees that are considered sacred. Whether for individuals or communities, the gifts of smaller, slower orchards - past and present - go far beyond fruit alone.

This is an extract from Taming Fruit, by Bernd Brunner. Translation by Lori Lantz. Published by Greystone Books.

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