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Posts Tagged ‘The Fruit Hunters’

Here is a McIntosh apple, a beauty to behold!

Here is a McIntosh apple, a beauty to behold!

Editors note – Since the publication of this essay, there has been a little debate on the NAFEX facebook page as to what the true identity of this apple actually is.  I have never claimed to be an expert, and it is totally possible that the ID that I claim is incorrect.  I bring this up in the spirit of learning, if someone has a better idea than mine and it is backed up with decent evidence, I am all ears!  Regardless of what the true name for this apple is, I feel this is still a strong essay that can stand on its on.  Enjoy…

A reoccuring theme here on Autonomy Acres is food, a lot of the time specifically about fruit.  Fruit trees, fruit shrubs, growing and foraging fruit, and eating fruit have all been topics covered here over the last four years.  Its a favorite subject of mine for good reason, I love fruit!  Growing it, eating it, learning about it, cooking with it,  you name it, fruit is one of my passions.  Especially apples!

 

Nothing compares to a tree ripened apple on a cool autumn day.  They signal the finished accumulation of solar energy, the life of the soil, and the water from rain into a near perfect orb that holds the sweetness of summer within its flesh.  They are the inspiration for poetry and legends, and for so many years have played a part in the stories and traditions of cultures from around the cool, temperate climates of the world.

 

It wasn’t that long ago when every region in the world where apples could and did grow had its own locally adapted varieties.  Many of these varieties were used solely for culinary uses or cider and were rarely eaten out of hand and remained nameless, wild apple trees living on the edges of forests and in the hedgerows between fields.

 

But many of them contained desirable traits and magic that enchanted us – a superb taste, or great storage capabilities, or one that made a particularly smooth cider.  Some are just plain gorgeous, or ugly for that matter, but any of these apples that have called to us, have been named, and shared, and sometimes have even become famous.

 

Presently in 2014 there are roughly 7,500 named varieties of apples grown throughout the world, but it is thought that at one time (probably not all that long ago), there could have been well over 10-12,000 distinct varieties being cultivated worldwide.  But with the steady march of progress and the ever increasing trend towards a global monoculture, much of our collective apple heritage has been lost to the bulldozer, the suburbs, and the destruction of our traditional food systems.

 

While much of our great wealth of apple diversity still exists,  it is scattered and gets harder to find with each passing season.  The global, industrial cultivation of apples now relies on just 15 varieties for the bulk of its production.  How sad it is to have lost so many unique apples (and the land upon which they grew) in favor of a handful of apples that are easy to harvest and ship, and oftentimes resemble wet cardboard in  texture and taste.

 

There is an apple tree a couple miles from my house that I have been visiting now for the last few years.  It has been a reliable producer with apples that are hardly troubled by pests or disease.  They have tended to be a medium to large apple, but occasionally I will find one that is just huge!

 

This year I got to the apple tree far later than I ever have and realized that I had been picking this apple a bit too early.  This year I didn’t harvest until the middle of October, and because of this later harvest, these apples were really ready to be picked and had fully ripened on the tree.

 

Do you see a graft line?  If so, let me know...

Do you see a graft line? If so, let me know…

What I was really interested in was if I could find a graft line anywhere on the trunk.   While there is nothing discernible that indicates where the graft union may be (it was probably buried when planted, or slowly covered by the accumulation of mulch and leaves), I am pretty sure that this is a grafted, McIntosh apple tree.  Eating it this time of year, versus last year when I harvested them early in September, changed the flavor profile quite a bit, and it became evident that this was an apple that most of us have had at some point in our lives.

 

It has a noticeable thicker skin, a white to somewhat yellowish flesh that is far from crisp, but is definitely not mealy either, a small short stem, and is easily bruised when dropped.  The fruit tends to have a uniformly deep red color to it, that is splashed with small streaks of green.  It is not overly juicy or sweet, but has a nice, subtle acidic bite to it that makes it fine apple for eating fresh.  It cooked down to an almost perfectly smooth apple butter that only needed a bit of pureeing at the end.

 

All of those characteristics when compared to other descriptions of McIntosh (see here, and here) seem to be a fairly good match.  McIntosh started its journey in Canada back in 1850 and went onto to become a very popular apple for cultivation throughout Western Canada down into New England, and the upper midwest (where I live).  It is a large spreading tree, that tends to have reliable harvests, and at least the one I am harvesting from seems to be fairly resistant to some of the more common pests and diseases around here.

 

Honestly it is not the greatest apple I have ever eaten, but it is still pretty good.  Just for the fact that this is a big mature tree that is easy to harvest from, and also produces high quality fruit, and lots of it, makes me glad that this tree is in my neighborhood.  The fact that this tree is also in a spot that is very easy to access doesn’t hurt either.  This tree is a relic from when this area was still farms and orchards and I can only imagine that this McIntosh tree is in its twilight years.

 

Before I came to the conclusion that this tree is a McIntosh, last year I collected scion wood from it and grafted it onto one of my !Frankentrees!  At the time of grafting, I was calling it Crusader because of a landmark closeby, but it is now looking like I will have to get a new tag made up for that branch.

 

Mcintoshharvest

Here’s the Harvest!

The fact that this apple tree is a fairly common variety, doesn’t lessen its value as a tree or for what it can provide for one who cares for it. Moreover, the bounty and the knowledge I have gleaned from this tree are invaluable.  I love free food, and I also love the chance to learn something new, and this tree has provided both.   I admit that it would be fun to find and identify a tree that is more of a rarity than a McIntosh, but the fact that I am pretty certain about my identification means that my observations and research are maturing and starting to pay off!

 

Sadly it is getting harder to find old trees whether they are a rare variety or not.  The continued suburban expansion proceeds with the same vigour as late stage cancer, and it is not only old apple trees that perish and are lost to history, but many other forms of biological diversity are

threatened from this unceasing onslaught.

 

We may not be able stop the majority of this destruction, but we can be stewards to what is left.  We can educate our communities on the importance of fruit and nut trees, we can seek out and help preserve the genetics of threatened species and varieties,  and we can also start planting as many trees as we can on whatever land is available to us.  Trees are one way of investing in the future, so lets make our great grandkids proud and leave them something positive to remember us by.  Peace & Cheers…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Haskap Berries from our Garden!!

Haskap Berries from our Garden!!

Recently my friend John who is a fellow fruit enthusiast like myself and helps run the NASE with me, sent me an email with a link to a program entitled The Fruit Hunters.  Documenting the history of fruit and the industrialization of the food chain, The Fruit Hunters takes us on a journey through history and around the globe.  From the jungles of Borneo and Bali, to a banana breeder in Honduras, and the flat northern plains of Saskatchewan, people around the globe have made it their mission to preserve, propagate, and share exotic, rare, and often times threatened species of fruit.

 

Whether it is the Wani white mango, the quest to breed a more genetically diverse and resilient banana, or introducing the sweetly tart haskap berry to the culinary world, humans love affair with fruit is older than written history.  Since the days when we climbed down out of the trees, our symbiotic evolution with fruit has been many things – a culinary desire, a poetic muse, and a forbidden love.  Fruit has adorned the artwork in the halls of kings, and been the foundation in ceremonies for tribal people.  It is the favorite summertime snack of a smiling, messey 6 year old, and a common culinary ingredient in so much cooking from around the world.  Fruit is a global desire – something we can never get enough of when it is in season, and something we long for in the cold, dark days of winter.

 

Those of us who are a part of the modern homesteading movement are carrying on traditions that were a part of everyday life only two generations ago.  We grow food, we preserve it, and we pass on all that accumulated genetic wealth and history to the next generation.  But modern, industrial agriculture has done such a good job of separating people from the land and these homesteading traditions, that most people do not think twice about where their food comes from anymore.  It only makes sense that apples, oranges, and bananas come from the grocery store, right?

 

This has been made possible by creating a “Global Summertime” that is powered by massive inputs of energy dense fossil fuels.  The global supply chain of fruit production, from the field to the shelf, has very little room for genetic diversity and unique traits amongst all that is grown.  If you were a piece of fruit – a strawberry, an apple, a lime – and you were to be shipped halfway around the world in February, there are only a few things that the global fruit supply chain cares about.

 

The first is ripening time.  If you and all your brother and sister fruits do not ripen at the same time, whether that is on or off of the vine, shrub, or tree, you would never be considered for the circumnavigation of the globe.  Second, if you are too difficult to harvest efficiently, sorry, maybe next time.  And third, if you do not have thick skin and a body that cannot be roughed up a bit and look better for the wear over a journey of a few thousand miles, than that will not work either.

 

Notice how flavor and aroma are not on that list.  Neither is the fruit inspired passion and ecstasy that comes from a just picked raspberry, or the first bite of an intensely flavored Rubinette apple, or a tree ripened plum.  Global fruit does not care about human passion and desire, and it definitely does not care about genetic diversity amongst the plants that we grow for our food.  Every banana you find at the supermarket is the same Cavendish banana that is being grown worldwide on every banana plantation.  Highly prone to disease, the fate of the global monoculture of the banana rests uneasily on a regiment of fungicides, insecticides, slave-like labor and a hope that a global pandemic like the one in the late 1960’s can be avoided today.

 

Another example of intolerance towards genetic diversity within the global food production system is the apple.  Quite possibly the most well known fruit in North America, Europe, and other temperate regions throughout the world, the apple has a long history that began in the mountains of Kazakhstan and has spread the world over.   Ranging in color from greens, reds, yellows, and infinite combinations of the three, and with flavors as diverse as banana, pineapple, cinnamon, anise, honey, sweet, tart, and acidic; apples have been a historic treasure trove of genetic variation and unique characteristics.

 

Beautiful Apples – Courtesy of Steven Edholm – Turkeysong Blog

Even their names are evidence to the genetic wealth contained in the species Malus Domesticus – Brown Snout, Etter’s Gold, Black Oxford, Redfree, Hudson’s Golden Gem, King of Tompkin’s County, Smoke House, Sweet Bough, and Chestnut Crab all come to mind.  Apples have taken their names from their physical appearance, flavor, place of origin, and the person who found or bred that particular apple.  They have become local legends and have had festivals dedicated in their honor, and until recently, almost every region of America (and elsewhere in the world) have had their hometown heros.

 

Worldwide there are about 7,500 varieties of apples grown today.  In America there are about 2,500 varieties that are grown throughout backyards and home orchards, and about 100 of those are commonly found in small, commercial operations.  Out of all of those apples to choose from, only about 15 varieties of them are grown on an industrial scale to supply the world’s taste demand for this wonderful pomme fruit.

 

Just like so many other varieties of plants that have been molested to fit the industrial model of agriculture, apples have been stripped of their unique identities.  Apples were made famous because of their great cider making traits, or their superb storing ability using traditional methods.  Some were used for drying or baking or making sauce, but all of them were valued for their own unique reasons.  Now an apple just needs to be sweet, without that much real flavor, and have the stamina to withstand the rigors of travelling the globe.  It is a truly sad story to witness the destruction of a vast gene pool like the apple to the hands of convenience.

 

While industrial agriculture is stripping the world of genetic diversity, there is a movement of individuals and groups throughout the world who are fighting back to protect it.  Backyard and hobby orchardists, nurserymen,  and globe trotting scientist and fruit hunters are on the front lines trying to preserve, protect, and spread all of these threatened genetics.  University arboretums, private collections, and orchards are all home to historic and endangered species of fruit.  And there are also networks that have formed to help spread these genetics.  In America there is the North American Scion Exchange (new website coming for the 2014 season!) and the Seed Savers Exchange, and in Europe there is Fruitiers.net.  There are real life scion exchanges at farming conferences and get togethers , and online trading through gardening and sustainability forums.

 

There is only so much that we as individuals can do, but the more of us who are actively participating in growing fruit, propagating genetics, and sharing what we have with the world can make a huge impact on preserving this rich history that belongs to all of humanity.  The further we progress down the road of industrial civilization and the agriculture that makes it possible, the more genetic wealth we will lose forever.

 

Every lost fruit whether it is an apple or a mango or a grape, not only represents millennia of evolutionary adaptation thrown to the wayside, but also a loss of human connection with the Earth.  Genetic diversity within our food systems not only ensures security against disease, drought, famine, and other challenges we face as an agricultural society, it also roots us in traditions that are entwined with the food we grow and that in turn nourishes our bodies.

 

Fruit is not just a food for the body, but also of the soul – the place where passion and poetry are born.  Eating fruit that you helped to grow or forage from the wild can be a sensual experience, and is one of the things that make us human.  Being inspired and moved by the sweetness of the flesh, the curvy shapes, and soft textures of fruit, we can connect with a part of our nature that has also been lost with the industrialization of food and the world.

 

So while we all can’t travel the globe searching for endangered fruits, we can all help preserve fruit genetics by growing fruit locally.  If you are a property owner try to plant as wide of a selection of fruit as possible.  Plant old varieties and new ones, things that are proven winners for your climate, and try pushing gardening zones if your heart (and taste buds) desires something more exotic.  Do not only grow these fruits, but help to spread their genes through scion exchanges and other plant swaps.  Learn propagation techniques like grafting, rooting and air layering.  If you do not have access to land to do this yourself, volunteer to help out those who do, or start planting your own Guerilla Forest Garden!

 

Whatever role you can play in the preservation, propagation, and sharing of fruit genetics, it will be a net benefit to human culture and for the biodiversity of the planets edible plant population.  With climate change and the the ongoing destruction and pollution of traditional agricultural and wild lands, any and all help is needed to help protect these species of fruit – even the ones that seem to need no protection at all today.  It will be a sad day indeed when an apple like the Honey Crisp or the Concord grape are no longer available because we could not take care of our planet!  Peace & Cheers

Part 1 of The Fruit Hunters

Part 2

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