Given that the meagre fruit from my veg patch apple trees has long gone, I could hardly believe my eyes when I walked into my niece's garden the weekend before last; at the far far end of the garden, the branches of the two eating apple trees were still weighed down with fruit. Not only that but the grass all around was littered with windfalls so the fruit was definitely ready for picking.
I was curious; my niece shares my interests in harvesting and preserving. Surely this abundant fruit should have been transformed into purée, jam or chutney before now? I was told that the fruit was "no good". On closer inspection about 80% of the fruit was marked with brown blotches, like a russetting across the skin. I found an unmarked apple and ate it as I wandered around. The apple was crisp, juicy and sweet and I resolved to try and rescue the best of the rest.
I gathered up a bagful of the apples and took them home to cook. They were delicious and I survived the week with no ill after effects. (I probably should have checked before eating but, hey, I'm a spontaneous kind of gal.)
Thanks to the RHS website, the blotches were identified as apple scab. This is an airborne fungus that doesn't affect the flesh of the fruit so, once the fruit is washed and peeled, it's perfectly okay to eat. The fungus spores overwinter on fallen leaves and then the cycle starts again with new leaves and fruit being affected from mid-spring. Part of the solution is to rake up any affected leaves as soon as they fall and, in the spring, prune out any blistered young shoots. Needless to say, it's best to burn affected material and not to put the affected fruit, leaves, shoots and peelings in the compost bin!
|Closer inspection shows the marks of apple scab|
The thought of all those other apples left behind played on my mind during the week. I hate wasted food and even more so if I then have to go and buy more of the same! I'd arranged to take my niece's children to the cinema this past Sunday so went armed with a large tote bag for a second harvest to bring home. After a very windy Saturday, there were plenty of good windfall apples and I also picked some blotched fruit from the branches. If I had more freezer space, I could easily have doubled or trebled the amount of apples brought home but, even so, gathered nearly 10 kilos of fruit.
I'm gradually working my way through the bowl, peeling, chopping, cooking and juicing or freezing. With that amount of apples I've found it's best to get in the swing of it - peel, chop, core, repeat. I set out a large bowl of water with lemon juice next to the chopping board; the lemon water is to stop the fruit oxidising and going brown. For speed, I use a potato peeler to take the skin off, a knife to halve the apples and a melon baller to remove the core. The peelings are dropped straight into another box next to the chopping board. The prepared fruit is dropped into the bowl of lemon water and, once that's full, lifted into a large pot for cooking. I like using up eating apples in this way as they hold their shape and don't need any added sugar. What I do add though is a full vanilla pod and three or four whole star anise; this really lifts the flavour of the fruit. The cooked fruit is frozen to use at a later date in pancakes and pies or eaten with yogurt; I might also make some fruit leathers.
I wasn't surprised to learn that growers can't sell scabbed fruit, even though the flesh is okay. The fruit spoils more quickly and is no good for the high visual standards demanded by consumers. This issue is addressed by spraying trees with a variety of chemicals throughout the year. That's an unpleasant thought isn't it? Personally, I'd rather eat fruit prepared from scabbed apples than fruit soaked in chemicals to make it visually appealing. For the home grower, it's best to buy trees that have been bred to resist scab and a lot of commercial growers are doing the same. (Google scab resistant apples.)
In finding out about all this, I read of an American farmer who let his squad of 120 pigs roam through his orchards to eat up all the fallen apples in the hope of eradicating any disease spores. The pigs' health was unaffected and the experiment successful in time. Happy pigs, happy farmer. Sometimes the old ways really are best.