A bite of history: Farmers preserve Australia’s heirloom apples | gardening advice

Here’s a festive trick for food nerds and geeks: name as many types of apples as you can. If you start dropping off after you’ve listed 10, that’s understandable. But there is much, much more.

Australia has over 200 varieties of apple growing in heirloom orchards and in people’s backyards – although an exact number is difficult to pin down. These varieties originated from Europe, the United States, and Japan and have names such as Belle de Boskoop, Rhode Island Greening, and Akane. Apple and Pear Australia track 18 commercial apple cultivars, including the more popular Red Delicious, Granny Smith and Pink Lady.

Some are outdated, or even at risk of extinction because modern customers prioritize consistency, and durable items can better withstand complex supply chains and long-distance transportation. So it was left up to farmers and dedicated volunteers to preserve the older, more delicate varieties in fruit bowls and collective memories.

There’s a renewed interest in planting heritage fruit, says Katie Finley of Grow Great Fruit in Victoria, as an epidemic has led to thriving backyard gardens. “We have a business in heritage orchards, but we also do courses because people kept asking us how they manage their fruit trees.”

Apple grower Katie Finley is from central Victoria.  Australia.
Katie Finley, an apple grower from central Victoria, says the epidemic has caused backyard gardening to thrive. Photography: Libby Nuttall

Growing grafting apples can be tricky; Often literally. If you like a variety, you can simply not sow the seeds. Akane apple seeds do not produce Akane apples. Instead, you have to graft cuttings from the tree onto the rootstock. Once you get a fruiting tree, specialized pruning will be required to protect the fruit from the elements: Too much sun will burn the apple, but if it doesn’t dry out after a rainstorm, it will rot. It’s tough, but Finlay has met many people who are willing to learn. She says, before Covid, she had an average of 25 people enrolled in her classes. “Now, more than 500 people are enrolled in the latest online course.”

She is optimistic about this surge in popularity. More biodiversity helps with food security. “The more varieties you plant, the higher your chance of climate change,” Finley says. “Bramley and Cox Orange Pippin are popular varieties in England, but both struggle a bit in Australian conditions. Some seasons are not cold enough for them.”

The same goes for diseases. Brenton Kortman of the Rare Fruit Society in South Australia explains: “I have cultivars of Pink Lady and Emperor Alexander growing side by side. This year, the Pink Lady was covered in black spots but Emperor Alexander…was fine.”

Heritage apples also extend the fruiting season beyond the fall harvest. Cortman picks his first apple at Christmas and the last in early winter, because different varieties have different harvest times. “Not many people know that you can harvest apples in the winter either. Rockwood, for example, is a winter apple,” he says.

But the most obvious reason for preserving the apple’s heritage is the taste. Cortman is particularly excited about this. “Apricots have a similar shape, color, and taste but apples have a range of flavor, size, shape, and color. Macintosh apples have a bit more strawberry in them. Yellow Transparent is a Russian apple that tastes like lemon sherbet. I also grow Winter Banana apples, which smell a bit bananay. These It’s the way I know when you’re ripe.”

Winter apple banana from display at the museum inside Apple Shed's Apple Shed in Huon Valley, Tasmania.
Winter banana apples from Tasmania. Photography: Katie Finley

Farmers’ markets, particularly those in apple-growing regions such as the Adelaide Hills and Tasmania, as well as inner-city areas such as Melbourne’s Victoria Market, are among the places that carry heritage varieties, but these lesser-known apples rarely make the supermarket shelves.

Finley and Cortman both lament that commercial apples have become standardized in flavor and color because they are bred for durability. “Take the variety, Gravenstein. You pick it up in February and it stays crunchy and sour for about two weeks. It’s good for farmers’ markets but not right for big farming practices,” Finley says.

John Benniger talks about heirloom apples in Riponlea, Melbourne.
John Benniger talks about inherited apples in Melbourne. Photography: Farid Sir

As a rule, apples can be divided into three types: cider, cooking and dessert. Having access to a wide variety of cultivars means that each can be used to bring out their best qualities.

John Pinniger, representative of the volunteer-run Heritage Fruits Society in Victoria, provides a guide on how to pick and use apples. “Heritage varieties are smaller and have stronger flavours. The sugar in apples helps ferment and the tannin gives them flavor. Apples that are high in sugar and high in tannin are good for apple juice. If they are low in sugar and high in tannin, they can be To be a filler in applesauce or a blender.

As for cooking apples, Granny Smith seems to have cornered the market, but Pinniger suggests trying different types. “If you’re making an apple slice, you want an apple that keeps its shape and doesn’t crack. If you’re making a puree, you want an apple that turns into a puree,” he says.

Kortman is more specific: “Try baking with Wellington apples.” He says they’re dehydrated, keep their shape and “do not pop in the oven.”

They both have the same guide to getting a good candy apple: Whatever variety, if you want to eat it raw, it’s a candy apple.

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