Posted on Thu, May 27, 2010 by Slow Food USA
3 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Farms and Farming,
This article was first printed in “Hearsay,” the newsletter of the Harris Center for Conservation Education.
The big and beautiful Red Delicious is the stereotypic but tasteless apple that has come to dominate the supermarket shelf, comprising more than 40 percent of all apples sold in big box chain stores. Add just 10 more varieties that are carried by such stores and that percentage rises to 90. In contrast, it’s not 15, it’s not 150, not 1,500, but something like 15,000 varieties of apple that have been named, grown, and eaten in North America. Clearly, the biodiversity of domestic apples is threatened. Why?
Well, in our 40 years, programs on apples have always been a popular draw at the Harris Center, and that’s no exception in the past few months, when we’ve had visits from Tom Burford (Professor Apple), and Ben Watson, of Renewing America’s Food Traditions, an alliance of nonprofits that promote food traditions and biodiversity. Here’s what they explained.
With today’s mass marketing, a relatively few large nurseries control what gets planted in large commercial orchards. These supply the big box stores, which in turn want volumes of big and pretty apples. Trouble is you can’t tell a book or an apple by its cover! What’s needed here is apple counseling and a drink to the past.
Supporting the growing number of small-scale “micro” cider, restoration, and specialty orchards, including CSAs, may be the answer. Specialty growers, including backyard “citizen pomologists,” are relearning the art of grafting and the science of selecting varieties that please the palate and meet objectives – from getting an early-season “apple fix” to growing late-season storage apples, like the new disease-resistant Gold Rush that taste great well into the winter months. The art of grafting is key, since seeds of any apple are all genetically different and grow into trees that only rarely produce apples with the taste of the parent tree. So, both branches that bear the desired varieties of apples and a good virus-free root stock are required for grafting.
As Ben and Professor Apple always say, aim to eat and grow to eat locally. So you need to know your apple bioregion: the varieties that historically fare well where you live. For instance, Professor Apple says that the popular Honeycrisp grows best in the Midwest and Great Lakes Region. The rare Granite Beauty, which Ben and Slow Food Monadnock are working to save, actually originated nearby in Weare, New Hampshire. Yet even Thomas Jefferson kept trying unsuccessfully to grow the classic variety Esopus Spitzenberg, one of his favorites. It’s one that does well in our bioregion but not central Virginia. Jefferson knew, however, that to please the birds at Monticello, he should plant the southern crab (Malus angustifolia), a small-fruited crabapple and one of only three apple species (all crabs) actually native to North America.
Finally, you’ve got to know your “spitters,” the many varieties of apples that don’t taste good (too tart or bitter) but have the specific qualities for making the best apple butter, wine, sauce, or cider. In fact, the cider apple varieties may be the once and future kings of apple culture. Cider (once it’s fermented) stores well and was used extensively for barter and even currency in Colonial days. At the time, there was plenty of demand, since wine grapes were very difficult to grow in Colonial America. Now, with today’s rapidly growing interest in local “micro” cider producers, it seems that hard cider is returning as a sophisticated drink produced by local artisans from local apples.
[photo of Harrison apples next to a cider press, courtesy of Ben Watson]