A Bite of History: Growers Preserving Australia’s Heirloom Apples | gardening tips

Here’s a party trick for nerds and foodies: name as many types of apples as you can. If you start to lag after listing 10, that’s understandable. But there are many, many more.

Australia has more than 200 varieties of apples growing in heritage orchards and people’s backyards – although the exact number is hard to pin down. These varieties are native to Europe, the United States and Japan and go by names like Belle de Boskoop, Rhode Island Greening and Akane. Apple and Pear Australia tracks 18 commercial apple cultivars, including the most popular varieties Red Delicious, Granny Smith and Pink Lady.

Some have gone out of style or are in danger of disappearing because today’s customers value consistency and sustainable varieties can better withstand complex supply chains and long-distance transportation. So it was left to niche organic growers and volunteers to preserve the older, more delicate varieties in our fruit bowls and collective memories.

Katie Finlay from Grow good fruit in Victoria says there is renewed interest in growing heirloom fruit as the pandemic has created a boom in home gardening. “We have a heritage orchard business, but we also run classes because people kept asking us how to manage their fruit trees.”

Apple grower Katie Finlay from central Victoria says the pandemic has created a boom in home gardening. Photography: Libby Nuttall

Growing apples can be a difficult transplant; often literally. If you like a variety, you can’t just plant the seeds. Akane apple seeds do not produce Akane apples. Instead, you should graft cuttings from the tree onto rootstock. Once you have a fruit tree, it will require specialized pruning to protect the fruit from the elements: too much sun will scorch an apple, but if it can’t dry out after a storm, it will rot. It’s capricious, but Finlay has met a lot of people eager to learn. She says before Covid she had an average of 25 people enrolled in her classes. “Now more than 500 people are registered for the latest online course.”

She is optimistic about this popularity boom. More biodiversity contributes to food security. “The more varieties you grow, the more chance you have in climate change,” says Finlay. “Bramley and Cox’s Orange Pippin are popular varieties in England, but they both struggle a bit in Australian conditions. Some seasons just aren’t cold enough for them.

The same goes for diseases. Brenton Kortman from Rare Fruit Society of South Australia explains, “I have Pink Lady and Emperor Alexander varieties growing side by side. This year, the Pink Lady was covered in blackheads, but Emperor Alexander…was fine.

Heritage apples also extend the fruit season beyond the fall harvest. Kortman picks his first apple at Christmas and his last at the start of winter, as different varieties have different harvest times. “Few people know that you can also harvest apples in winter. Rokewood, for example, is a winter apple,” he says.

The most obvious reason to keep heirloom apples, however, is taste. Kortman is particularly enthusiastic about this. “Apricots are similar in shape, color and taste, but apples have a range of flavors, sizes, shapes and colors. The McIntosh apple has hints of strawberry. Yellow Transparent is a Russian apple with a lemon sorbet taste. I also grow the Winter Banana apple, which smells a bit like bananas. That’s how I know when it’s ripe.

Winter banana apple from the museum display inside Willie Smith's Apple shed in the Huon Valley, Tasmania.
Tasmanian winter banana apples. Photography: Katie Finlay

Farmers’ markets, especially those in apple-growing regions such as the Adelaide Hills and Tasmania, as well as city center venues like Melbourne’s Victoria Market, are among the places that offer heirloom varieties, but these lesser-known apples rarely make it to supermarket shelves.

Both Finlay and Kortman lament how commercial apples have become uniform in flavor and color because they’re bred for durability. “Take variety, Gravenstein. You pick it in February and it stays crisp and tart for about two weeks. It is suitable for farmers’ markets, but not for large agricultural practices,” says Finlay.

John Pinniger lectures on heirloom apples at Ripponlea, Melbourne.
John Pinniger lectures on heirloom apples in Melbourne. Photography: Fred Surr

Generally, apples can be divided into three types: cider, cooking, and dessert. Having access to a range of strains means that each can be used to showcase its best qualities.

John Pinniger, a representative of the volunteer-run association Heritage Fruit Society in Victoria, provides a guide on how to pick and use apples. “Heritage varieties are smaller, with stronger flavors. The sugar in the apple is what helps it ferment and the tannin gives it flavor. Apples high in sugar and tannin are ideal for cider. If it’s low in sugar and high in tannin, it can be a cider filler or a blender,” he says.

As for baking apples, Granny Smith seems to have cornered the market, but Pinniger suggests experimenting with different varieties. “If you’re making an apple slice, you want an apple that holds its shape and doesn’t break down. If you’re mashing, you want an apple that turns into mush,” he says.

Kortman is more specific: “Try cooking with Wellington apples.” They’re drier, hold their shape, and “don’t burst in the oven,” he says.

Both have the same guide to a good table apple: regardless of the variety, if you like to eat it raw, then it’s a table apple.

About Franklin Cheatham

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