A Pippin in New York

27 Feb 2012

The domestic apple (Malus pumila or Malus x domestica) is one of the world’s most phenotypically diverse edible crops. In the US alone it is estimated that 15,000 to 16,000 named varieties have been grown historically. Yet only around 3,000 are still available to growers, the remaining 80 percent being either commercially or actually extinct. Of the 20 percent that remain, some 94 percent are considered either “threatened” or “endangered” by the RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) alliance.

Again in the US, only 11 apple varieties represent 90 percent of all the apples sold in most grocery stores, with one variety, Red Delicious, still dominating the market, accounting for 41 percent of the US apple crop in 2009 (roughly 11 billion kilos).

Unfortunately, the situation in the rest of the apple-growing world is much the same, with only a handful of similar, unexciting varieties dominating the market. At Terra Madre 2010 in Turin, apple growers from Piedmont dramatically demonstrated this loss of market diversity, placing 500 traditional Italian apples on circles at one end of a display table, and setting out only five commercially available apples in 500 circles on the other side. These represented the most common market varieties in northern Italy, and they correspond closely to the list of America’s “Top 5” apples: Red Delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and Fuji.

There are many reasons to be concerned about this shocking loss in genetic diversity and consumer choice. For one thing, the common market varieties are, in terms of taste, very “monochromatic”; organic apple expert Michael Phillips describes them as “sweet and nothing more”. They are bred for widespread acceptance, shipability, and extended storage and shelf life, not for their unique flavors or specific uses, as in the past.

To be sure, not all older apple varieties are good when grown everywhere, or for every use. And several modern apples have been bred that have both great flavor and impressive disease resistance. (GoldRush is one of the best examples.) Yet working to preserve existing apple diversity does matter, for a variety of reasons: to preserve local, regional, ethnic, historical and cultural traditions; to preserve maximum genetic diversity in the field for the use of future fruit growers and plant breeders; to maintain varieties that are best adapted to specific local growing conditions (and hence require little or no chemical spraying for the broad spectrum of pests and diseases that can affect apples); to maintain and expand the different flavors of our common “taste palette”, both for ourselves and for the sake of future generations of eaters.

In the US, several efforts have been initiated in recent years to restore the nation’s “apple literacy”, with Slow Food involved on many levels. The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity has recognized an important Presidium project in northern California, aimed at preserving and promoting the remaining growers and processors of the Sebastopol Gravenstein apple.

The Gravenstein is a world-renowned variety that was first introduced to the US in around 1790, but arrived on the West Coast independently, via Russian traders, in around 1820. As recently as the 1970s, Sonoma County, California, was considered the “Gravenstein capital of the world”, but today much traditional orchard land has been planted to more lucrative wine grapes. Only ten to 12 farmers still grow Gravensteins commercially, on around 875 acres (350 ha); in 1958, some 5,449 acres (2,180 ha) were in cultivation, and there were 40 processors in the area. (Today there is only one major local processor, which buys apples in late summer to turn into apple juice, sauce, and vinegar.)

In the face of tremendous market pressure from fresh apples imported from Washington State and juice made from Chinese apple concentrate, the market for Sebastopol Gravenstein apples has contracted greatly. But through the efforts of many groups affiliated with the presidium growers, including both regional chefs and the Slow Food Russian River chapter, this apple—which is such a short-lived seasonal specialty and so unique in flavor and quality because of the local climate and growing conditions—is being actively and effectively promoted and marketed.

Many other examples of local projects around the US could be cited, including CROP (Chicago Rare Orchard Project) and the newly formed Boston Tree Party, a group that intends to plant pairs of heritage apple trees in every public park in Boston. Slow Food New York City has worked hard to place the Green Newtown Pippin apple (an NYC native variety) on the International Ark of Taste, and to support efforts spearheaded by local journalist Erik Baard to plant it in public spaces throughout the city. And the RAFT Alliance has even brought together groups of the nation’s most important apple experts for a series of educational symposia and public programs, including one held in September 2010 at the National Agricultural Library, a US Department of Agriculture facility just outside Washington, DC. NAL has asked this group of experts to work with landscape architecture students from the University of Maryland to design and plant a “heritage orchard” on the library’s 12-acre property.

From northern Maine to southeast Wisconsin, from central California to southern Appalachia, there is a renewed interest in old apples. The results of this work will go on and (like apple trees themselves) may take a few years to bear fruit. But the wait will be well worth it, once the delicious harvest begins.

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