Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Biologische Obstspezialitäten: Swiss organic fruit farming the traditional way

Using the internet to document my orchard obsessions has allowed me to discover fruity wonderlands in far away lands. Recently, I was contacted by Helmut and Monika who manage such a place on the southern shore of Lake Constance in Switzerland between Romanshom and Arbon. They've generously donated some photos of their farm, and I think you will agree with me that it looks like quite a place!

It's a rare example of a commercial fruit farm of the most traditional form, with 550 trees of apple, pear, plum and cherry set over 10.5 hectares. The trees are standards, planted on vigorous rootstocks and allowed to grow to full height. These are the type of orchards that are so rich in biodiversity and are a 'priority' habitat for conservation in the UK. It has been a family run enterprise for 120 years, but the age of some of the trees demonstrates a tradition of fruit growing that stretches back much further.

This photo shows one of their fantastic old perry pear trees, a type of fruit tree that is particularly beautiful after a hundred years of growth. Sadly trees like this are becoming increasingly rare in the UK.

This tree is an apple variety called 'Gravenstein' that Heklmut and Monika make a single variety sweet cider from. You can see the poles they use to prop up the heavily laden branches preventing breakages in the Autumn - a technique I haven't yet seen employed in Britain. Tender loving care!

This is another apple called 'Muolener Rosen'. Apparently is a variety that is largely unknown but produces a very healthy vigorous tree that crops productively in alternate years. Many cider varieties show this cropping pattern in Britain, especially in unpruned traditional orchards.

Harvest time in the orchards. The farm is totally organic, with the main income coming from sales of fresh fruit and sweet cider in the farm shop. They also supply apples and pears to a local cider factory. They also supply to retail outlets in Bern and Basel.

They produce other single variety ciders, such as 'Sauergrauech', 'Leuenapfel' and 'Taffetapfel'. (Just when you thought you were making headway in the labarinthine world of fruit varieties, hey!).

A pleasing traditional orchard scene with the next generation of trees beautifully complementing the more venerable characters! If only more orchards in Britain had such a continuity of horticulture and habitat.

Autumn colours remeniscent of James Stanley's orchard near Ebrington in Gloucestershire.

I'm not sure what the winters are like in this part of Switzerland, but presumably they are pretty hardcore. Ideal for killing off pathogens in the trees and preventing disease outbreaks.

This amazing tree is a another perry pear. A fruit-growing research station near Zurich came down and aged this tree at 300 years old! The variety is called 'Wagner's Wildbirne' that is good for fermenting and drying too. Apparently its found nowhere else in Switzerland. You get trees approaching this age in Britain but I have never seen one with such wide spreading branches. She's a BEAUTY!

They have also developed their own variety called the 'Emmy' apple which is exclusively available from this farm. Thats the young tree in the foreground here. Helmut and Monika explained that they included this photo to illustrate that with vigorous 'seedling' rootstocks (e.g. M25) it is a fallicy that it takes years and years for trees to start producing.

All in all, I feel an orchard holiday in the making!

Friday, October 28, 2011

The surviving orchards of Ebrington

Looking down towards Chipping Campden from one of the only old cherry orchards left in this part of Gloucestershire. In this area, it's better to focus on what is left to preserve rather than dwell on what has been lost.

This is James Stanley, a farmer who lives locally to me. He looks after several fantastic old orchards that I spotted via Google Earth. Today he was kind enough to take me on a guided tour of his orchards and the weather couldn't have been better for it. This tree is a Blenheim Orange. I've encountered a few old ones like this - they're impressive trees and always recognisably by the gnarly bark. It's a tasty late dessert apple variety found in c. 1740 as a 'gribble' by a gardener, Mr Kempster, on the boundary wall of Blenheim Palace in Woodstock. (A 'gribble' is an apple tree that has germinated naturally from a pip in the countryside, in case you were wondering!).

It is a classic traditional orchard, with all the trees widely spaced on standard rootstocks that has enabled the tress to grow large enough to cope with cattle grazing for many years. James was telling me how he used to pick from all the trees using tall ladders and sell the fruit locally. Sadly now there is no market for the varieties except intermittent custom from local cider-makers. Hooray for cider, again!

This is an interesting tree. James has a whole row of these, with spectacular claret fruit. James' father used to call these "Devlins".

Looks can be deceiving though, as they taste pretty cardboardy and apparently only really sold during the war when everyone was short on options.

Beautiful perry pear trees again, reminiscent of an orchard in Bledington and my new friends Helmut and Monika's farm in Switzerland.

Because it has been so dry and sunny recently the trees have kept their leaves really well - look at the colour of this perry pear!

Sadly this orchard has a real issue with 'generational bias', like many traditional orchards. If they no longer have a commercial use then there is no incentive to 'gap up' when trees die and an orchard with no young trees will slowly fade away...

Is this Ebrington's last plum orchard?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reinette d'Orleans: tasting the ultimate dessert apple with Barry Juniper

There's nothing like spending a few afternoons trespassing in orchards to clear the smoke of the city from your lungs! I have been missing-in-action doing a masters course in London, but now I'm back wandering the groves...

I had previously mentioned a mysterious dessert apple called the Orleans Reinette (or Reinette d'Orleans). Back in Cambridge, Professor John Parker, the then Director of the Botanic Gardens, had recommended this as the best apple he had ever tasted. Many others agree. Orleans Reinette was first described in 1776 and is now grown throughout Europe but it remains in Britain as something of a rarity. It has proven to be illusive to track down. With apple season fully underway, last Tuesday I tagged along to a filming event with one of the world authorities on apples in his own private orchard.

This is Barry in his orchard in Wytham in which he has collected around 130 different apple varieties. Barry is an Emeritus reader in plant sciences from Oxford University and author of 'The History of the Apple'. He is doing his thing for a Dutch film crew that are producing a series called 'Paradise' that is all about the future of food (it is the brainchild of a very interesting scientist, director and writer: Louise Fresco).

In 1929, the famous pomologist Edward Bunyard described how '...it seems to come from the Low Countries, where we first meet with it in 1776. Its brown/red flush and glowing gold do very easily suggest that if Rembrandt had painted a fruit piece he would have chosen this apple. In the rich golden flesh there is a hint of the Ribston flavour, much of the Blenheim nuttiness, and an admirable balance of acidity and sweetness which combine, in my opinion, to make the best apple grown in Western Europe....as a background for an old port it stands solitary and unapproachable.'

It's an unbelievable apple. (It stands solitary AND unnapproachable!) Really low acidity and fantastic subtle undertones of vanilla that emerge as you chew. It's also cracking with a mature (= runny) English goat's cheese a drop of Sauternes. Those slices in the background are Brownlee's Russet - notice how the Orleans Reinette does not go brown (oxidation) when its flesh is exposed to the air. Go out and find one!
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