The season of harvests! Mid-September windfall apples showing the amazing diversity of some of over 60 varieties of apples here
The joy of seasonal eating -"To everything there is a season"
.... Autumn is such a gloriously fruitful season - full of Nature's abundant riches. "Mellow fruitfulness" to quote the poet - surrounds us everywhere!
As the seasons go round, they're punctuated by many firsts and lasts - some joys and also perhaps some regrets. But I have always been of the opinion that eating in tune with the seasons re-awakens our taste buds with each fresh delight - and makes us truly appreciate our food in a way that a year-round availability of everything never can. The height of summer gluts may be over and early autumn already here - but there's still an abundance of fruit in the garden, with apples and other tree fruits to pick and store for the winter - and also still soft fruit both outside and in the tunnels. There are plenty of autumn raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, cape gooseberries, grapes, late peaches, melons and figs again this year. In the polytunnel most of these will go on far longer than they would outside. In the tunnel they're also less at risk from the weather and they're more protected from birds - which naturally have the urge to gorge on fruit in order to store up as much energy as possible for the lean winter months ahead. Some fruits such as melons have such a brief season compared to many other fruits - but that makes them all the more longed for and valued for it! Seasonal eating is the way Nature designed us to eat, really tasting and savouring every precious mouthful while it's at it's most nutritious best. Eating anything, in it's proper season and at it's very best, is one of life's most enriching experiences.
I get enormous satisfaction from knowing that the food we eat here is grown completely without chemicals and without harming anything else that we share this planet with. I truly appreciate the multi-dimensional effort that Nature puts in - the bees, other pollinators and the multitude of biodiversity both above and below ground which make all of our food possible. There's a lot of talk about 'Food Empathy' lately and I'm not exactly sure what that actually means to some people. To me real food empathy is taking into account all the incredibly complex biodiversity that we share this earth with - at the same time as enjoying eating with the seasons. That's even more rewarding when I have the huge satisfaction of growing it organically myself and quite naturally eating seasonally!
Very few people now seem to be strict about seasonal eating - which I prefer - unlike our forbears who had little choice but to eat what was available at the time!
Along with that though there's an increasing awareness of the nutritional, logistical, environmental and aesthetic problems of fruit and vegetable storage. I've seen many articles recently - on apples in particular - probably as it's the season for them. All year round consumption of imported, out of season, denatured, environmentally destructive chemically-grown apples is not for me. Or even organically grown ones come to that - if they're flown in from all over the world! (see my article on this here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/492-for-the-highest-nutrients-in-fruits-and-veg-timing-is-everything
) Apples imported from thousands of miles away can never be as healthy for us as they should be and they're certainly not healthy for the planet either, in terms of their carbon footprint - even if they're organic! Non-organic apples are sprayed with many synthetic systemic pesticides and fungicides, industrially-grown, picked when they're immature, often long before their proper season, washed and disinfected to be free of any naturally occurring bacteria on their skins, benign or otherwise and then often treated with a preservative fungicidal wax. This is purely in order that they survive longer in industrial, climate-controlled cold stores and subsequently on supermarket shelves. The early picking, denaturing post-harvest treatments and long storage, often before being flown halfway across the world, means that even the organically-grown ones are nutritionally depleted to start with - but it also means that they're virtually tasteless!
Those apples on supermarket shelves look so glossy and attractive - with their perfectly selected uniformity and convenient plastic packaging. Sadly though, the non-organic ones are hiding the dark secrets of their chemical carbon footprint beneath an blemish-free, cosmetically perfect exterior, just like Snow White's poisonous apple! Too often even the organic ones are also imported from far away - even at this time of year when they should be easily available locally. We should be demanding more locally-grown, organic apples - or our choice will become even more restricted as orchards are grubbed out everywhere in favour of housing estates! The only alternative is to grow one or two trees ourselves. As I mention later - the kitchen gardeners of past centuries, who bred many of the apples still available today, were masters at producing and storing fruit in order to have a variety of tasty fruit for as long as possible - and we can still benefit from that wisdom and their skill - by preserving the varieties they bred and by asking for them or growing them today. But we don't have to just grow old varieties - many of the modern ones are excellent too and have been specifically bred for flavour, nutrients and disease resistance. As I walked round the new orchard this morning I snacked on a delicious apple called Scrumptious - bred in the 1980s and high in antioxidant nutrients. Surely people would remember that name?! Perfectly ripe fruit, each kind eaten in it's own proper season, is one of life's greatest joys and Nature's greatest gifts to us - so let's enjoy our apples fresh, local and organically-grown while we can!
My 'Scrumptious' mid morning snack - its name describes it
Storing rich history!
Most people are so far removed from their country origins now that very few consumers understand the reason why there are times when apples actually have to be stored - let alone know what a ripe apple picked straight off the tree tastes like! Although absolutely nothing beats a perfectly-ripe apple picked straight off the tree - sadly apples don't grow all year round. If we want apples available all year - then even if they're locally grown, we do have to accept that some will be stored. Climate-controlled mass storage however, is as different to natural seasonal storage as supermarket shopping is to shopping at a local farmers market! This morning as I walked around the orchard, I wished that many of you could be with me. I would so love to see your eyes light up at the colourful picture of genetic diversity and amazing history that all the trees represent - in just the same way that I saw people's faces alight with interest at the recent Totally Terrific Tomato Festival! They are all different, each one with individual histories and fascinating stories to tell. In my new orchard - on the other side of our land well away from the hormone weedkiller spray drift that often affects my old orchard now - the trees are growing apace. Many of them are old friends which I remember from my childhood - growing up with 6 acres of orchards on the edge of the Vale of Evesham. That was definitely the roots of my apple addiction! Of those sadly now long gone trees, many were also the same varieties which I planted here 35 years ago - in order to give us a good selection of apples for for as much of the year as possible. I only have about a month or so every year without some fesh or stored home-grown apples. That gap I fill with those preserved either by dehydrating or freezing. I have apples from the end of July until the following May in most years. Some of those that ripen in October will keep until until April or even mid-May. If these are carefully picked and stored like the treasures they are - they can then be eaten later on in winter along with comforting memories of balmy autumn weather!
People often ask me "Why on earth do you grow so many varieties of apples?" - My reply is that every year is different - and every apple variety is different too. A variety that does well one year, may not do so well in another due to the weather when they are flowering, or developing their small fruitlets later. The new orchard, which I started planting three years ago, is also my insurance and investment for the future, as the old orchard on the other side of the property often gets hormone weedkiller spray drift in spring from my lovely chemical farmer neighbour - which causes all the flowers on the trees to abort and drop off before they flower in March and April. So hopefully having the two orchards on opposite sides of my 5 acres will ensure that I get a decent amount of apple each year - and apples are one fruit that I simply can't be without, having grown up among wonderful orchards. This year due to the hot weather and drought many of the young trees in the new orchard dropped their developing fruits - but the 35 year old trees, with far deeper roots, have still produced a decent enough crop. The normal 'June Drop' as it is known - sadly became a July drop as well on the younger trees - but I was determined not to water them, as they have to adapt and develop the root system they need to forage for themselves. That way they will be far hardier and more self-sustaining in the long run. It takes a few years for a new orchard to settle down - and next year we will hopefully get a better crop, as the hot weather also acted as a natural growth inhibitor and will have ripened the fruiting wood early - which will encourage flower and fruit production.
In non-organic commercial orchards trees are often sprayed with chemical growth inhibitors like Cycocel to produce the same growth inhibiting effect! Yet another delightful additive to add to the long list of chemicals in the non-organic apple of consumers who think that they're eating something healthy! Cycocel is the trade name for the chemical Chlormequat Chloride - a growth inhibitor used on cereals like wheat to shorten straw growth and prevent 'lodging'. It's also used on tomatoes, apples and other crops to encourage better fruiting. It is a known developmental and reproductive toxin in mammals! Would you really want to give your child a so-called healthy apple grown with such chemicals?
It's the apple season - so why can't we buy a variety of fresh, local apples in shops - now and all year round?
Tickled Pink, almost ripe, on the tree mid Sept.
Nowadays the only apples available in supermarkets are almost without exception tough-skinned, tasteless, sugary sweet varieties like Gala or Pink Lady.
These bear so little resemblance to the apples I grew up eating from our own orchard that they might as well been grown on the moon! And frankly most taste like they have been!! Primarily this has a lot to do with new breeding programmes, often in the USA, and promotion of patented varieties - which I won't go into here or you'd be reading this for a month! They're bred for high production, uniformity of shape, disease-resistance and consumer 'eye appeal'! They're rarely for flavour! Very few have the complex, aromatic flavours and character of the older varieties - or even some of the newer, less popular ones. Even Braeburn - a new, very tasty variety from New Zealand - has very little flavour when grown non-organically, picked immature before it is properly ripe, purely in order to meet supermarket specifications, then stored for months or even years in climate-controlled warehouses in an almost cryogenic-like suspension!
Tickled Pink has flesh of a fabulous crimson colour & tastes of sour cherries!
Occasionally, one of the supermarkets may have an English Apple promotion for a week or so in the autumn and you may find the odd russet if you're lucky. So many people are put off by the rough brownish colour and have no idea what they taste like, that you often see them lingering on the shelves. And anyway - as I've already mentioned - these won't have developed their proper, very distinctive flavours because they're picked well before they're ripe. Yet when eaten in their natural season and fully ripe - varieties like Egremont Russett or Ashmead's Kernel have some of the most complex, richly-aromatic flavours imaginable! With no doubt the complex phytochemicals to match - since that's where their aromatic flavours originate. My mouth waters just thinking of them! It will be another couple of weeks before the first of my russets - Egremont Russet is properly ripe - and yet only yesterday I read on Twitter that some supermarkets are selling them already. What an abomination! No wonder they taste bitter and foul - with nothing like the sun-warmed, sweet spiciness that they should have! Luckily some of these older varieties are still available in a few farmer's markets - and trees are also increasingly available from good fruit tree nurseries and a few of the better garden centres.
With that I'm not saying that all new varieties are bad - they're not. There are some really terrific new, non-GM varieties being naturally bred now for specific qualities like higher amounts of desirable antioxidant phytonutrients and disease-resistance. The new high-anthocyanin phytochemical variety Tickled Pink is one such example. It has delicious crimson flesh which tastes amazingly of sour cherries! For those like me - who like a more tart and less sweet apple - it is delicious when really ripe but it also makes an excellent cooker - it makes spectacular Tarte Tatins! Red Devil is another high antioxidant variety with red stained creamy crisp flesh and is a fabulous-tasting, heavy-cropping, disease-resistant variety which picked in early October will keep in normal cold home storage until Christmas most years and is perfect for organic growing. It's also an excellent pollinator for other varieties, as being a flowering group 3 cultivar, it will pollinate those varieties which are in the groups either side of it's flowering season and will overlap with it's flowering time. What more could you ask?
Another complaint is about about apples being stored. People want them fresh-picked and local all year round - an unrealistic expectation that shows just how far removed many are now from understanding food plants as our ancestors did. All year round availability of everything has destroyed so much valuable knowledge of seasonal food. Apples have been stored since humans first discovered they could be - there's archaeological evidence of that up to 10,000 years old. Animals have also always stored apples and other fruit for the winter - and since we're basically animals, we've probably always done that too! There are literally thousands of varieties of apples suitable for growing in various parts of the UK, with fruit that can be picked from July to the end of October and stored, or which have to be eaten immediately. Later maturing varieties of apples have to be stored in order to preserve them. Many varieties that are picked in late October go on developing slowly in storage and are only at their best after Christmas or even later. In the old walled kitchen gardens of great houses the gardeners were artists at knowing when each of the hundreds of varieties they grew would be at it's individual unique and perfect stage for picking and storage. Something which one only learns from experience They had to be experts - for their masters demanded a selection of perfectly preserved fruit to be available all year round. In Victorian times great pride was taken in growing many different varieties of fruit. No dinner party in a great house would be complete without a display and discussion of the various merits of particular apple varieties. They were treated as the delicacies which they are - not thoughtlessly taken for granted like so much mass produced fodder - as they are now. Apples have individual characters. Every variety is different - just like people. That's what makes them so fascinating and varied. That difference also means that they're not all suitable for certain climates or particular soils and may even behave and taste differently in different years.
There may perhaps be some people who want apples to predictably taste the same all year round or they may only ask for one particular apple because perhaps that's the only variety they know the name of. That is another reason why named varieties can tend to disappear - but that is to lose so much of the joy of their fantastic diversity. Even our grandparents knew far more varieties by name than people do now. Just in the same way that you can have cheap mass-produced, processed food that will sit on your shelf for months and still taste exactly the same - you can have cheap, mass-produced apples, stored for months or even years! And they'll be just about as nutritious! Apples don't come off assembly lines and don't grow to order. They don't 'die' when they're picked - depending on the temperature and humidity at which they're stored, their cells go on functioning normally, powered by energy which they have stored from the sun, so that they continue developing slowly - they go on breathing and changing. They're also affected by prevailing weather conditions - which are different every year and becoming more so with the uncertainties of climate change. In a poor year weather-wise, some varieties may not fruit at all, if the weather is bad when they're flowering - tough if that's your favourite variety! Another recent problem can be the proximity of orchards to spray drift from neighbouring fields. With modern more efficient vapourising sprayers this is an increasing problem and one I often suffer from here. The vapour can carry a very long way and can badly affect any flowering plants like fruit trees at flowering time. Hormone weedkiller sprays make sensitive blossom abort and drop off - that's how it's designed to work - so again no apples! Yet another and even more worrying problem is the accelerating decline of bees and other insects so vital for fruit tree pollination. Again this is mainly due to the chemicals used in industrial agriculture and also destruction of habitat. In China they are already having to individually pollinate blossom on thousands of trees by hand! Perhaps OK for them - since they've got plenty of cheap labour - but how much would such apples cost here? How many people would be prepared to pay the price for that fruit?
One of the last Thomas Rivers Nursery catalogues which I have here
The consumer does have to bear some responsibility for for less choice of local varieties, along with the demise of old orchards with their far more varied and tastier fruits that were never sole in supermarkets!
Many have disappeared along with all their old varieties - often locally discovered and named. This has been caused by the rise in supermarket shopping,
the demand for ever cheaper food, the requirement for uniform shapes and sizes for packing and for varieties that look more attractive and appealing as I've already mentioned! Many of the old orchards were in traditional market-gardening areas supplying large cities like London - and as surrounding land became increasingly valuable, it was more worthwhile selling it than to try to keep uneconomic old orchards going! The same thing happened to many of the large fruit tree nurseries. A famous, relatively recent case was Thomas Rivers Nursery of Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire. Founded in 1725 - the nursery only closed it's doors for the very last time in 1986. I have one of their last catalogues pictured here from 1980/81 - which I got when I was ordering trees and planning for what I now call the 'old orchard'. (I read fruit catalogues like others read novels!) Another reason for orchards and old varieties disappearing is that labour became far more expensive after the two World Wars - so that many of the newer varieties that have been developed since are bred to grow more uniformly and to be more suitable for growing in different ways which facilitate mechanical harvesting. Some old varieties like the small, aromatically perfumed Cornish Gillyflower for instance - which was discovered in a Cornish cottage garden in 1800 - would be totally unsuitable for this kind of production. It's what is known as a 'tip-bearing' apple, fruiting only on the very end tips of branches. If it was pruned in the more labour-saving, mechanical way as modern orchards, then it would hardly ever produce any apples at all! Added to that if you saw it in a shop - unless you knew what an absolute jewel you were looking at - you wouldn't buy it! It's quite knobbly and unattractive compared to some more modern varieties - but it's flavour is absolutely incomparable!
As you can see then - it's not quite as simple as 'an apple is just an apple'! Like everything else in nature - it's a little bit more complicated than that. I've only outlined a few of the reasons here for the tasteless apples available in shops now. There is an awful lot more involved than just picking an apple off a tree!
So what can we do about it? Here's some suggestions. Support local community orchards, volunteer in, or start, community orchards. Find organic growers and see if you can buy direct from them or at farmers markets. Plant a tree or two yourself. You could grow one in even the smallest garden, if you have any outside space at all. You don't even need soil - trees can be grown on the highly productive M26 rootstock in large containers. Visit the National apple collection at Brogdale and try a few varieties - their apple day and many others are coming up soon. You could even buy traditional storing varieties in bulk from pick-your-own orchards and store them. Now there's an ideal opportunity for an enterprising organic grower! A lovely, tasty apple day out - learning how to correctly pick and store your own apples!
The fruits of memory
Really good fruit of all kinds has always been a great passion for me - but especially orchard fruits like apples, pears and plums. My father was a keen pomologist (or fruit enthusiast) and a bit of an expert on apple varieties in particular. He loved his orchards and passed his great love of all fruit on to me. Where I was lucky enough to grow up, we had a large garden where every conceivable kind of fruit was grown - much of it planted in the late 19th century. We were also surrounded by it - living close to the famous fruit growing area of the Vale of Evesham. In addition we had wider family with Cider apple and Perry pear orchards - farming on the Welsh borders in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. So I am steeped fruit-growing history and apples are in my DNA! The names of some of those apples were probably some of the first words I ever learnt! I have vivid memories of my father up at the very top of a huge old wooden ladder picking crisp Conference pears, or Victoria plums as big as duck eggs from trees that seemed as tall as a house to a small girl. I remember him lifting me up to look at the nest a robin had made under the lid of an old iron pump by some dilapidated old farm buildings, down in the dip where the ancient damson trees grew. The Worcester Pearmain tree where my pet spaniel jumped over a fence onto a sharp scythe and cut her paw deeply - my father instantly finding cobwebs in the old stable to staunch the blood flow temporarily, before rushing her to the vets to get it stitched. The huge old Blenheim Orange apple tree that grew beside the beautiful brick pig sties - it's orange and yellow striped, crisply aromatic apples so enormous that I had to hold them with both hands to try to bite into them, while watching November 5th bonfires! - So many colourful and fruitful memories! It's lovely to know that the Blenheim Orange tree growing in my orchard now is actually carrying fruit growing on branches from that very same tree. It has to be - since named varieties can only be propagated using wood from that precise variety!
Sadly the orchards where I played as a child - during sunny and warm autumn days that seemed to last forever - are all gone forever, like so many of the great orchards of England. I can still picture it all in my mind though - still grow those varieties and enjoy those precious memories. I love carrying on that tradition and passing it on in turn to my children. They don't mind helping to harvest - when they can enjoy eating it too! I was especially thrilled a few days ago when my son remarked that my apple cake tasted so good - and asked me if the 'Grenadier' cooking apple that we'd recently picked together was in it? Like me- they've absorbed the names of them without even realising it - and are also beginning to know something of their history and origins too, just as I did. Like many other ancient food crops - there is so much history in apples. From the earliest varieties that would have been brought from Eastern Europe by the Romans - the first to discover the art of budding and grafting specific varieties - down through countless generations. Monks in Medieval monasteries who brought 'new' improved varieties like the Old Pearmain, brought from France in the early 13th century and those skilled kitchen gardeners of the great houses, or self-sufficient cottagers, who thought a particular apple that they might have grown from a pip was so good that it was worth propagating. All of these people passed down so many wonderful varieties to us, their heirs, in the present day. I am so grateful that they did!
Walking in my orchards I feel surrounded by history. I really love that by growing old heritage varieties of apple - I am almost touching hands with that history and connecting with those former apple lovers throughout the centuries and even the trees I used to climb as a child! Fanciful you may think? No - their DNA is exactly the same! This is because any specific named variety of apple can only be propagated by grafting a shoot from that tree onto a new rootstock. That means that all of the apples that we picking today from any variety are from branches that are simply long continuations of the same branches that former gardeners nurtured and enjoyed, just as we do! It's vitally important that we preserve what's left of our old orchards and preserve the wonderful history and also genetic diversity in them all. At some point in the future - given the challenges we may face with increasing climate change, the genes in some variety may be useful in breeding programmes as it may have resistance to some as yet unknown pest or disease.
Old Pearmain - one of the oldest known varieties. Grown in UK & France since 1200. Picked in Oct, ripening in Dec - keeping until March.
It's time to order new apples and other tree fruits now!
This year has been a fantastic year for most fruit despite the drought which in some areas was worse than others, so you should have plenty if you have fruit trees. If not - then you may decide you'd like to grow one? If you're not busy picking and storing all your fruit right now - then get busy with ordering fruit catalogues - or doing orders so you'll have some next year. It's all incredibly good for you and so expensive in the shops - most of which is disappointingly inedible! There's still plenty of time to get fruit planted which will crop next year - but the sooner you do it the better. If you can't find good varieties in garden centres on the right rootstock - then look up good fruit nurseries online. Their catalogues are a mine of good, free information and if you order now when many have pre-season offers - you'll be at the front of the queue when it comes to early autumn lifted fruit trees like apples and plums.That way you'll get better bare-root trees etc. which will be sent out starting at the end of next month and throughout the winter. If you get them early you'll have time to get them planted while the soil is still warm and hopefully in good condition.
Getting fruit trees planted early means they'll get a real head start on anything planted into cold wet soil in late winter or early next spring. The young trees will have a few months then when they can just concentrate on their root development without trying to support new top growth too - and I can't tell you what a difference that will make to them and their future cropping potential - particularly if you're planting on a difficult or windy site like mine, or on a new allotment for example. If you start them off in spring, life will be a constant battle for them - in effect they'll be trying to run way before they can walk! It's almost like the difference between starting a child at school for the first time with all the others at the beginning of the autumn term - or starting them at the beginning of January - it can take them a very long time to catch up!
If you don't want to plant bare-root trees, some nurseries and garden centres may have a good selection of varieties on M26 rootstocks.....Warning! If the rootstock isn't stated - then don't buy the trees or they may be a complete disaster! In Ireland I find Johnstown Garden Centre particularly good - excellent, informative and knowledgeable customer service from Jim and Oliver there and it's not too far from me as it's in County Kildare. Their trees are grown in peat-free compost and are excellent quality. They also do mail order and have a very good (sadly far too tempting!) website. I also found Deacons Nursery on the Isle of Wight good for sourcing old varieties mail order - that's where I got the trees for my original orchard - but sadly they have closed down lately - another casualty of people not choosing to grow the older, lesser- known but valuable varieties. I also find Ken Muir relaible in the UK. I only recommend nurseries which I know and have had good service from. I don't recommend Nurseries that I don't know or have had bad experiences with! There are naturally many other reputable and reliable suppliers - but also a few duds with poor customer service and trees which are often not the varieties they are supposed to be - despite surprisingly glossy websites! One or two also have very pushy emailing habits! I won't elaborate!
Remember - growing anything that you can for yourself, especially something which you can store, will give some food security. And with headlines in the Guardian newspaper today warning of possible food shortages - especially of fresh foods, in the event of a no deal Brexit - this is fast becoming an increasingly likely possibility. And asnyway - no matter on how small a scale you grow - whether it's just in a window box or on an allotment - it's always cheaper, far better and far fresher than buying it!
- Right now I'm off to tackle some more of the apple mountain battered and thrown down by Storm Alli. Even though many are bruised and have been torn far too early from the trees, so they won't store - they can still be used by processing in many ways and freezing. Good organic cooking apples are very difficult to find any time - let alone in late winter - so they are still valuable and I'll be very glad I made the effort!
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.)