The Preservation of Fruit

By Sara Dickerman

It’s hard to read Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book without getting
a little orchard fever. I was just about to send a $50 check in this morning
to a stranger in Oregon. The Oregonian, named Nick Botner, grows
hundreds of varieties of old apples, plus plums, cherries, and grapes. He was
happy to pick a couple of apple trees out for me and send them along, and I
then planned to plant them in the parking strip between the street and the
sidewalk in front of our house. Too bad then, that, I waded into the city of Seattle’s
tree-planting regulations–and right there among the prohibited vegetation were
apple trees, the very icon of Washington agriculture. Fallen fruit, it seems, is
a hazard and a nuisance on the sidewalks. Hazardous fruit! No wonder we all eat
so badly these days—if fruit is considered a hazard and organic cheese
crackers a healthy snack. My husband, it turns out, agrees with the city. While
I’d envisioned gallons of homemade applesauce, dozens of pies, and lazy Sunday
lunches of pork belly with apples (see JG’s Fruit Book, p 10), he predicted a
pile of rotting apples beckoning all the yellow jacket wasps in the county toJane_grigsons_fruit_book
come and buzz about. Had I planted my trees, and had they born fruit, the truth
would have been somewhere in the middle. 

Reading (and rereading) Grigson inspires me to be not just a
better cook, but a better procurer. That means of course visiting farmers
markets for my fruits and veg, and signing up once again for a CSA; but Grigson
also writes about old, soon-to-be-forgotten breeds of fruit that have a hard
time surviving any commercial market and I want them! I want unruly mulberry
trees, breathtaking peaches, old French apples and a treeful of glistening
greengages (I do not have room in my muddy yard for them, though). I hate to think
about missing out on a more delicious variety of fruit, especially apples,
which are so good in pies (try Grigson’s blackberry apple pie, for example). On
top of that there is a sense of history and cultural preservation that goes
with caring for an uncommon–and old–species. It’s perhaps no surprise, but
there are plenty of people out there who want to save old varieties of
fruits—some colonial relics, some prized continental varieties, some promising
hybrids from past decades. I started cruising charming fruit-nerd sites like
this one and that,
and anxiously paging through the useful website of this British Columbia orchard and the Trees of Antiquity catalog and,
trying to figure out if I were more of a King
David
or a Calville
Blanc
kind of girl.

Anyway, thanks to city regulations, for the moment, my
Johnny Appleseed efforts have been thwarted, but should you be curious about
old fruit varieties, start digging around—you’ll find a community of hobbyists
and professionals who collect old cultivars, trade scion stock, and generally
celebrate the pleasures of diversity in the garden.

As for me, I might have to settle for a gooseberry bush, planted in our small
front garden, far away from the parking strip.

Other links:

This Smithsonian article introduces a couple of “fruit
detectives,” who have helped identify hundreds of varieties of old apple species.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/issues/2002/november/apples.php?page=1

The toothpaste people seem to like old apples too:

http://www.tomsofmaine.com/apple/heirloom/default.asp

And of course, there are plenty of American apples in the
slow food ark:

http://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark/heritage_apples.html

______________________________________

Sara Dickerman is a freelance writer and is now the food and dining editor at Seattle Magazine.  She wrote the introduction to the Bison edition of Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book.