Thursday 16 August 2012

Apples Old and Apples New

Between my recent visit to Merridale Cidery and the many pints of applesauce I’ve canned in the past couple of weeks, I’ve got apples on my mind these days. 

There are few things more evocative of autumn than a freshly picked apple. After the lush abundance of summer’s soft fruits, the crisp texture and slightly tart flavour of a freshly picked apple is tonic.  The smell of them cooking in my kitchen is a sure sign that summer is winding down. 

Apples are so abundant and so common now that we tend to take them for granted.  Because we see them in the store year round, we no longer appreciate them as a seasonal fruit and, because we see just a few commercial varieties offered for sale, we’ve long since lost our appreciation for the variety of flavours, textures, and colours apples once brought to the table. 

Apples were once a major commercial export crop in Canada but, for decades now, production has declined annually.  Canadians eat about 35 pounds of apples per person per year but, increasingly, those apples are imported either from nearby Washington State, from New Zealand, or from China.  In 2008 Canada ranked 27th in world apple production, and that number is likely to continue to decline.

I’m saddened that, in a place so perfectly suited to growing apples, commercial apple orchards are on the decline. I’m sadder still to see an ongoing loss of apple varieties.  Only 15 or so of the 7,500 known apple varieties are grown for commercial sale. 

The apple’s biology inclines it to diversity.  Apples have 57,000 genes (compared with humans’ 30,000) and are triploids, with three sets of chromosomes that cannot be divided evenly.  The potential for variation in such an arrangement is enormous.  They’re a very adaptable crop.

In the wild, apples grow quite readily from seeds. However, like most perennial fruits, apples are ordinarily propagated asexually by grafting. This is because seedling apples are an example of "extreme heterozygotes", in that rather than inheriting DNA from their parents to create a new apple with those characteristics, they are instead different from their parents, sometimes radically.[i]

Apples are easily grafted, meaning that you can cut a piece from one apple tree, splice it into the living stock of another apple tree, and it will grow.  This attribute enables orchardists to graft an apple with desirable qualities that may not be particularly hardy onto the root stock of a tree with less desirable qualities that is more able to withstand seasonal weather conditions.  It also enables orchardists to graft stock from large trees onto root stock with a dwarf or semi-dwarf habit in order to grow smaller, more easily managed trees.  It’s even possible to graft several different varieties of apple into a single tree.

Genetic diversity and its affinity for grafting have made the apple an extremely versatile and important food crop for more than two thousand years. 

Apples have been cultivated for their sweet or bitter flavours, for acidity or lack of it, for tender or very firm (or red, pink, white, pale yellow, or pale green) flesh, for their tall or dwarf growing habits, for their ability to be pruned into espaliers (living fences or trellises), and for their ability to withstand specific sets of weather conditions.  They have been grown in shapes ranging from very round to almost conical and with skins that are green, yellow, orange, red, brown or any number of combinations of these colours.  Some apples are rough.  Some are smooth and shiny.  Some are very large, and others are tiny.   

It used to be that a drive across country at harvest-time would enable a person to encounter and sample many different apple varieties.   It’s more difficult to do that now.  Most heritage apples – not considered commercially viable crops – survive in back yards, in small holding orchards, or through the concerted efforts of seed savers and seed banks. 

Loss of plant diversity is of concern to all of us.  If we grow only a few varieties of any crop, the crop’s survival can be threatened by inclement weather, or by diseases or pests which spread easily through genetically similar plants.  If we grow many varieties within that same crop, the chances are much better that at least some of them will survive regardless of any adverse conditions that may come our way. 

Growing varieties that are best adapted to local conditions rather than concerning ourselves exclusively with their commercial properties is also kinder to the environment.  Plants well suited to their growing conditions are more amenable to organic farming techniques, better enabling farmers to avoid the use of pesticides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers, or extra watering.

And, of course, crop diversity brings with it the joy of being able to experience many different flavours, colours, and textures instead of limiting ourselves to just a few.

You can support genetic diversity within our apple crops and help to ensure the continuing survival of heritage species by seeking out and buying heritage variety apples. 

Farm markets can be a great place to find heritage apples.  In recent years we’ve found Gravenstein, Northern Spy, Fall Russett, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Cortland, and Rome Beauty apples at the weekend market here in Duncan. 

Specialty orchards are beginning to make their mark too.  Look for heritage orchards in your local agricultural directory.  Many sell not only apples, but also trees for planting.

Please seek out some heritage apple varieties this fall.  Enjoy your apple a day with good conscience, and enjoy some new-to-you flavours too.

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Tuesday 7 August 2012

A Visit to Merridale Estate Cidery

Do you have a favourite farm, vineyard, or orchard that you like to visit?  I do.  Actually I have a few, but one of them is Merridale Estate Cidery.  I like to take my camera and wander in the orchards at most any time of year, I enjoy their products, and I like to take my friends there too. 

A dear friend from Ontario came to visit me this weekend.  Since we live three thousand kilometers apart, any visit is a special occasion.  Looking for somewhere special to take her, I decided upon lunch at Merridale. 

We arrived at the restaurant at lunchtime on a holiday Monday and, because we didn’t have a reservation, were told that there would be a wait of about forty-five minutes.  Our visit was more about conversation than about eating, so we decided to wait until there was a table available. We used the wait time to tour the orchard and to enjoy a cider tasting.

The orchard is a lovely place to wander, and it’s set up so that you can learn about the cidery as you walk.   Here and there, walkers will find signs like this

identifying the apple varieties and giving you some information about their origin and flavour.

Merridale raises traditional cider apple varieties from England and from France.  In the same way that grapes are raised for wine, cider apples are grown for the specific qualities they will bring to the finished product.  They are usually somewhat bitter tasting, and have more tannins than table apples.  They flourish in the terroir here – that particular combination of climate, soil, and water that is unique to the valley.

They are often small, irregularly shaped, and even blemished but, because flavour rather than appearance is the primary concern when growing cider apples, Merridale chooses to raise their crops organically, without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides.  It certainly makes the orchard - with its grassy lanes - a more pleasant place to walk, and I believe it improves the quality of their products.

As we were walking the orchard, we noticed a sign standing all by itself, with no trees around it.

It said "Left overs don't go to waste!" and explained how they use the apples after the juice has been expressed.  You can click on the picture for a larger view that shows the complete text.

Later, we saw this sign, which I think is a fine philosophical statement.  :)

Brandy is a recent addition to the Merridale product line.  A quantity of their pomace (the dry crushings left after the juice is extracted from the apples) is used to make it.

About eighty tons of apples are used each year to make the seven ciders, three fortified ciders, and three spirits currently produced at the cidery.  All of these products are available for sale on site and you can sample them at the tasting bar, where bar staff will walk you through the different flavours, explaining how and why each is made. 

When we were finished our walk in the orchard, my friend and I went for a tasting.

I sometimes purchase ciders to serve with dinner courses in place of wine. I also
 buy Scrumpy on a regular basis and use it to make my own apple cider vinegarso I’m pretty familiar the products Merridale has on offer.  Even so, I learned some new things at the tasting, and I tried the winter apple fortified cider for the first time.  It suggested some new recipes to me. 

Tasting done, we arrived at the restaurant just in time for our seating, and were taken to a lovely table on the deck, with a view of the orchard.  It was very pleasant.  

The hostess was personable and our waiter polite but, here, the service fell down.  

Our order was taken shortly after we were seated but we didn’t see our lunch for more than an hour.  

I understand that quality food takes time to prepare but we had ordered a lamb burger and the featured salad, both of which are relatively simple dishes. 

We didn’t see our waiter at all during the time we waited for our meal.  I finally went in search of the hostess, to ask if we’d been forgotten, and she in turn went in search of our waiter.  

Our waiter arrived at our table about five minutes later and advised us that the reason for the delay was an unexpectedly large number of covers at lunch.  Apparently, they had run out of all the prepped ingredients and were prepping from scratch for each order.

In the three times I’ve been to Merridale for meals this year I’ve never once been received my meal in less than forty-five minutes.  Each time, when I inquired about my meal, I've been offered this same explanation.  I must say that, this time, I received it with some skepticism.

The food, when it arrived, was fresh and hot and made with beautiful ingredients but apparently the prep work that had taken an hour and fifteen minutes did not include washing the apples for the salad. They were sliced and added to the greens with the blue sticky labels still attached to the skin!

(I’m sorry that I didn’t take a picture.  We were so hungry by the time our food arrived at the table that I forgot to take out my camera.)

Summing it all up, I’d have to say that I’ll still visit Merridale.  I love walking the orchard. 

I enjoy their beverages and will continue to buy them. 

I just won’t go to the restaurant again, nor will I recommend it to my friends.  

Perhaps I should thank them though.  The wait for our meal afforded an opportunity for a good, long conversation with a very dear friend.