Posted on Fri, February 27, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
8 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Farms and Farming,
This year, for the first time ever, the RAFT alliance (Renewing Americas Food Traditions) will be focusing on apples. Filling us in on their activities is our apple expert, author Ben Watson. Ben is chairing the Ark of Taste committee and helping Gary Nabhan and the RAFT alliances efforts to record, restore and renew disappearing heirloom apple varieties. On the docket are fruit tree grafting workshops, an heirloom apple experts summit, and education efforts such as a forgotten fruit manual/manifesto, and a series of posts for us here on the blog.
by Ben Watson
(Ben Watson is Chair of the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste Committee and an amateur nurseryman and fruit grower.)
Late February, western New Hampshire. Tonight snow comes down in heavy wet flakes, leaving a fresh white comforter several inches thick over the landscape. Yet those of us who live and garden in this place arent fooled by the weather. The sun, when it shines, is stronger now, the days longer, and the signs of spring are only a few weeks away. Soon enough sap will be rising in the sugar maples, small sugarhouses will open their louvered roofs, and white steam clouds billowing from the wood-fired evaporator pans will puff into the bright blue sky. Soon too the snowpack will retreat, and on the sunny, exposed edges of the lawn the first species crocus will emerge, tentative and yellow, followed by other early bulbs: snowdrop, squill, and grape-hyacinth.
Its a season pregnant with potentiality. We order seeds, clean and sharpen our tools. Like baseball players arriving at spring training, our outdoor ambitions for the growing season are a blank slate. Anything is possible as we enter this Lenten season weve no hits, no runs, no errors. And now is the time that apple growers are contemplating the orchard, though in truth we have never forgotten about it. The trees have stood silent, dormant, but were still eating some choice, long-keeping fruits from cold storage: Roxbury Russet, Mutsu, Northern Spy.
The larger orchards around here have had their pruning crews working amongst the trees since early January, shaping and cutting back the dormant wood to allow for healthy trees and for abundant, well-sized fruit this coming fall, which seems a lifetime away. And we ourselves been working the phones and email, contacting fellow orchardists who have apple varieties that wed like to propagate this year, making deals to swap cuttings (or scions) which well use to graft onto young rootstocks, or topwork onto mature apple trees, to get a first crop in, if were lucky, two or three years time instead of waiting the usual five or six (or maybe eight) years for the tree to reach adolescence. Maybe well take a twig or two from the feral apple tree down the road, which except in bloom time goes unnoticed by anyone save us and the deer. The same tree whose fruit we tasted last fall (it was astringent, but had good sugars, we noted, and it might make or might once have been—a locally famous cider apple). Or perhaps well make an effort to graft some more of those rare historic or regional varieties this year, ones whose names our ancestors certainly knew names like Granite Beauty, Nodhead, Black Oxford, American Beauty, Orange Sweet, Mother, Garden Royal, Shiawassee Beauty, and Opalescent but that have been almost entirely forgotten today, except among a few apple connoisseurs and conservation orchardists (the two so often go hand in hand). For although there are thousands of cultivated apple varieties, exhibiting an incredible diversity of flavors, colors, shapes, and uses, the vast majority of Americans never see them for sale, even at small regional orchards, which themselves are becoming an endangered species in the face of rising land values and the dictates of a corporate food system that has decided only fifteen or so apples really deserve a place on the table.
In recent years, weve witnessed a retreat from the attractive but tasteless Red Delicious apple (though this is still a leading variety) and a turn toward much better but still one-dimensional apples like the much-ballyhooed Honeycrisp. Yes, it is sweet, yes its crisp and juicy but like so many improved apples it was selected not for its uniqueness, or because one person or one small community loved it or thought it tasted superb, but because it fits our extremely narrow 21st-century preconception of what an apple should be. It appeals to the mass market and offends almost no one. It is considered the next big thing and commands a premium price in the market; orchardists are scrambling to plant it, and will continue doing so, until the next must have apple is developed, released, and patent-protected by some breeding program.
This year, however, there is a notable addition to the rhythms of work in the winter orchard and Slow Food USA is playing a role. On March 19, the RAFT alliance, of which Slow Food is a founding partner, will host a Forgotten Fruits meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. This extraordinary apple summit is the first of its kind in modern times, and it brings together a critical group of small nurserymen, fruit growers, researchers, and orchard consultants, all of whom have dedicated their lives, at least in part, to preserving Americas apple varieties and traditions, as well as those of other fruits.
One important aim of this multi-generational meeting is to pass along much of the living wisdom and practical skills of older orchardists to those eager, but less experienced conservators who will be carrying the torch in the coming decades. Other questions will include: how best to identify, propagate, and promote local and regional heirloom apples; how to focus our conservation efforts over the short and long term; and how to leverage the currently strong interest in heritage varieties and local food systems to bring the finest historic apples back into commerce, making them available through small community orchards, local farmers markets, and specialty food stores.
Of course with apples, as with anything else, older is not necessarily better. Yet the prospect of rediscovering and reintroducing these great old American apples, each of which has its own individual character and unique attributes, its own peak of perfection, its own optimal growing conditions or terroir, and its own special usefulness (whether it makes the best apple butter, or pies, or apple brandy) is incredibly exciting, and may lead to an ongoing Heritage Orchard initiative under the aegis of RAFT one that in time will include other endangered and superior-tasting fruits, such as those listed on the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste.
Look for updates on the Heritage Orchard initiative in the coming months, but for now try to spend some time looking at the US Ark of Taste or RAFT regional lists to see which heritage varieties of apples have commonly been grown in your part of the country. Because, for this orchard renaissance to have a lasting effect, it will require a grassroots effort among Slow Food chapters and our many fellow travelers who care about local foods and farms. One strategy is to adopt an apple: find a local orchard that already grows old regional varieties such as those on the Ark or RAFT lists. If local orchards dont grow them yet, suggest that they do, and then tell your friends and help create a local demand for them. (Read about Slow Food NYCs apple project here). Only in this way will these unique apples which represent our common taste history—remain relevant in a one-size-fits-all, Honeycrisp-uber-alles world.
[Further interest in heirloom apples? See some other apple posts from our blog during the past year! Click here for a piece about the Shiawassee Beauty and and here for more about RAFT’s planned work with apples this year. -ed.]