Saturday, May 23, 2009
The apple blossom (2)
There is a fiddle tune called "The Apple Blossom," notable for its wide-ranging melody, with unusual octave leaps in the opening measures. These don't signify blossoms directly, but they evoke a feeling which relates to the feeling of the wide-open apple blossom, attracting bees and birds. And so while staining the deck of the reconstructed porch this noon hour, the overpowering odor of the blossoms on the trees back of the house reminded me of this tune, which stayed with me.
It's unusual to have two good apple blossom years in a row, but it's happened. The apple blossoms are about a week to ten days ahead of their normal schedule, as I've noted the times of full blossom in many years past. Most of the trees are in full bloom today, the Shiawassee especially, the Summer Scarlet, the Baldwins, the Liberty, the Rhode Island Greening, the Prima, and the many old nameless trees in the orchards that pomologists Herbert Wave and John Bunker have tried, and failed, to identify.
The man who built this house 99 years ago planted, as many others did, several apple varieties in the field behind the house, all too close to one another by today's standards. At the start of this post is what they looked like this early afternoon. And when you walk through the woods on the island you sometimes find old cellar holes, the houses long gone. Not too far from these you'll see a half dozen ancient trees, still trying to produce even though hemmed in by spruce.
Bunker, who knows about apples almost as much as he thinks he does, has been in charge of Fedco's apple division for decades, and a couple of years ago published a book about the apple trees of Palermo, Maine, called Not far from the Tree. It is a good book, and represents much labor and time, years of fruit-tree collecting, ferreting out information on the trees in the area and in other parts of the state of Maine. As a birder will travel to see a new bird, an apple-hunter like Bunker will travel throughout the state to find an old variety of apple that he hasn't before encountered. An amateur pursuit of the purest kind, with rewards in knowing rather than in commerce, it's resulted in his ability to identify varieties of hitherto unknown apples, chiefly from the fruits, which he must inspect and taste before deciding what variety they are.
And so every year at the Common Ground Fair, in the Fedco exhibit Bunker has samples of fifty-odd varieties of apples, identified and resting on a table; and he offers to identify your apple, if you bring it to him in a small paper bag and answer a few seemingly simple but actually very helpful questions such as whether you think it is an old tree and what is the diameter of the trunk at chest height and is it by the side of the road, behind the house, or in an orchard with other apple trees. To test his abilities, I brought him two years running a sample of the same apple, with the same information; and each year a few weeks later came a letter from Bunker in the mail, with the identification. Except that one year he said it was one variety, and the next year another. Well, it is a difficult task, unlike bird identification where individuals look far more alike.
For a few years in the 1990s when I was a member of the Seed Savers Exchange I researched old apple varieties in the state of Maine myself, reading the state pomological society's reports published in the annual "Agriculture of Maine" books back in the 19th century. I thought I might try to acquire some scion wood of the old Maine varieties, graft it to stock, and see if it did well; and so I did. I had a little nursery in the late 1990s with a dozen or two growing grafts, but few survived more than a few years and to date only the Hubbardston has done well.
I'm not sorry about my little experiment, and if I decide to do it over I would do it a little differently, exploring and tasting right here on the island, to find what did best in this particular local climate. Besides, the apple varieties singled out for praise by the Maine pomological society more than a century ago were those thought to be promising for commercial purposes, which means the fruits did not bruise easily, they shipped well, they looked good, they ripened all at the same time and did not drop from the tree before they were ripe, and they lasted for a relatively long time both in and out of storage--these qualities were more important than taste. The development of the commercial apple proceeded right through the 20th century until it reached perfection with the Red Delicious, which although red is anything but delicious. For the home apple, taste is paramount.
And so there will likely be enough apples for cider and cider wine again in the coming fall. The cider from the fall of 2008 has practically completed its long slow ferment, and I put half of it into my oak barrel about a week ago. There it will stay for a couple of months until I bottle it, whereupon the other half will go into the oak barrel for a similar treatment. When I tasted this first batch it seemed mild, compared with the best years; we shall taste what happens as it ages in the barrel and hope for the best.