Apples are packed with Vitamin C, iron, potassium and fibre so no wonder they’re the most popular fruit in Switzerland. We all eat about 16kg of them, per person, every year.
While the tale of William Tell might lead you to think that apples are a native Swiss fruit, in fact they originally came from Kazakhstan, spreading slowly across Europe along the Silk Road. Apples were practical fruit for travellers on long distance trips. They are light, and can be carried as fresh or dried fruit. The seeds in fresh fruit remain viable for several months after the fruit has been picked, and only need a period of cold and moisture to germinate. The apple seeds that germinated would have been able to bear more fruit for later travellers, so continuing the spread of apples, little by little, across Europe to Switzerland.
Become a pomologist
A pomologist is someone who studies fruit. Jean Bauhin, of Basel, was one of the great doctors, botanists and pomologists of the 17th century. With a colleague, he published the Historia plantum universalis in 1619. The opening chapter is all about apples, where Bauhin tries to sort out all the different types of apples by use and then describes as many apples, in detail, as he knows. The Historia is available online, for free, if you would like to have a go at decoding the Latin!
To become a good pomologist, you need to be able to use all your senses to study and describe the fruit. This is an ideal project for younger students, and is fun to do at home as well. The students need to use all their senses to understand as much as possible about the apple and decide how to record this information, in written, pictorial or artistic form.
Bauhin and many other pomologists start by describing what the fruit looks like. Is it longer than it is fat? Is it round? What does the depression at the end look like? They can be flattish, large or deep and small. Is it the same shape all the way round or is one side flatter than the other? The old variety Calville Blanche d’Hiver is not round at all, but lumpy with 5 sides.
Next we can look at the skin of the fruit. Is it bumpy or smooth, are there freckles on it? Some apples, like Golden Delicious, only develop their freckling when the fruit is ripe. What colour is the fruit? Green, yellow, red or pink or a mixture of all of them? The Franc Roseau apple, another heritage variety, starts off greenish yellow, become freckled with pink dots and eventually becomes stripy red.
The next element to consider is smell. You might think that all apples smell the same, and that can be true of the modern varieties, particularly if they’ve been kept in industrial fridges to preserve them, but the older varieties often have unusual fragrances. You might be able to pick out rose, orange, roasted coffee, green grass or even almond oil as well as the expected “apple” smell. Apples, like many fruits, continue to ripen after they are picked, so a recently picked fruit will smell different to a fruit that was picked a fortnight ago, or has been kept in a fridge. Does the fruit smell the same once it has been cut open?
Now we get to taste the apples! What is the texture of the skin like? And how does it compare to the flesh of the apple? Crunchy? Soft? The “right” balance of crunchy and easy to bite? Those with orthodontic work will have different views on how easy the apples are to bite. And what about the taste? Sweet? Sour? A mixture of the two? Can you taste anything else in the flavour?
How do we compare our subjective ideas about taste and smell? Scales of sweetness or sourness are a start, with Fuji apples usually considered the sweetest and Granny Smiths the most tart. Do you agree? Is there a better way to record and compare the tastes?
Swiss local varieties
As you might imagine, an apple that came from the mountains in Kazakhstan is able to withstand heat and cold. Apples settled well into their new home in Switzerland, and the adaptable nature of the original parentage of the arrivals was prized as they could be grown at altitude, or down on the plain, and little by little the apples started to look quite different from the original parents. They were also used for lots of different purposes, depending on when they were picked, how long they could be stored for and what was made out of them.
The famous apple “Rose de Berne” or “Berner Rosen” was found by chance in a forest in 1850 and was then developed by the Daepp nursery, and was sold for the first time in 1888. It is still popular for its red-purple skin, yellow flesh and delicious taste. It keeps well until January, so is a popular eating apple. The Daepp nursery is still flourishing, too, and is based in Münsingen, near Bern (www.daepp-pflanzen.ch)
The Toliäsler apple was first shown in 1803 and thought to be from Basel. It looks like the perfect picture of an apple, with striped red and green skin and fresh green flesh. It’s very juicy and acidic, and makes excellent cider, hence the common name of “Pomme de Vin.”
Swiss apple recipes
Not only were apples used in cider or eaten fresh, but they were also used to give flavour to other dishes and products. The variety Museau de Mouton, or Schafnase, was cooked with bacon and potatoes to give a fragrant, delicious, rösti-like mixture. Have a look on Andie Pilot’s excellent Helvetic Kitchen website for her Schnitz und Drunder recipe for a modern take on this mix. Andie has dozens of other apple recipes, easy to try at home or in a school kitchen. (www.helvetickitchen.com)
Where to find Swiss local varieties
There are a number of organisations that help to protect Swiss local varieties. Pro Specie Rara are a charity that help to safeguard heritage breeds of animals and plants, with gardens and orchards across the country which you can visit. “You’ll see some of their more unusual fruit varieties in the Coop, as well as being able to taste and enjoy them on special open days. You can sponsor trees in orchards or grow a young tree at home or in a school garden (www.prospecierara.ch). Their main garden in Basel is wonderful to visit, at any time of the year. You’ll find it in the Merian Garden on Vorder Brüglingen, 4052 Basel. (www.meriangärten.ch)
In Suisse Romande, Retropomme organise tasting days and have a number of orchards that you can visit, as well as courses on planting, grafting and managing apple trees. (www.retropomme.ch)
Most Botanical gardens in Switzerland , such as Zurich, Geneva, Fribourg and Bern have collections of heritage apple trees, as well as other fruit. Local varieties are the main focus for each garden, but you’ll find other plants from all over Switzerland, too. Most botanical gardens can organise school visits and workshops.
Swissfruit, the union of Swiss fruit producers, have a range of well-planned teaching materials for all ages, including recipes, lesson planners and botanical handouts. They can also organise apple giveaways for school events, and are the founders of the very popular Apfel tage or Journée de la Pomme, where thousands of apples are given away at stations and other locations across Switzerland. This year it falls on the 18th of September. (www.swissfruit.ch)
How to grow your own
Most early apple trees grew from seeds, but because apple trees are highly variable, with differences in fruit size, ripening times, size and so on, the resulting offspring are also highly variable. This means that when you plant a seed from a particular apple, the seedlings produced may not look or behave like the parents. This is interesting if you are trying to breed new varieties, but difficult if you are a farmer and want regular and predictable fruiting from your apples.
Instead of planting direct from seed, farmers use grafted fruit trees instead. Grafting has been practiced for at least a thousand years, and is a simple idea. You take the top growth, the “scion”, from a particular tree, and insert it into the bottom section, the “stock”, of a different tree. You bind the two parts together and hope that the graft will “take” and the tissues grow together, forming a uniform bond and behaving like a single plant. It is possible to graft several different plants onto a stock, creating a “family tree.” These are ideal for home or school gardens where space is at a premium. Ask your local nursery for advice on what grows well in your region, and if they have an unusual heritage varieties to recommend.
About the Author
Hester Macdonald is a garden designer, founder of the Swiss Gardening School and author of “Gardens Switzerland” a multi-lingual guide to the best gardens open to the public in Switzerland.
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