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Updated: May 21, 2014 17:15 IST

The reluctant Gourmet - Apple of your eye

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APPLES TODAY Are designed for shipping, storage and shelf life
APPLES TODAY Are designed for shipping, storage and shelf life

American Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, New Zealand Gala, Japanese Fuji. Just five apples. And they're taking over the world.

A hefty portion of Slow Food's Almanac 2011 is dedicated to the vanishing apples of the world. Their lessons are drawn from Italy, the Netherlands and America. But the story's the same in India. When was the last time you saw a selection of local apples at the super market? According to Agricultural Products, India, the apple tree is believed to have originated from Asia. Most of India's apples are grown in North India, across three mountainous states: Himachal Pradesh, (known as the Apple State), Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand.

The king of Kashmir's indigenous varieties is the Ambri, with crisp, sweet flesh and fragrant aroma. It has a long shelf life and is an excellent ‘dessert' apple. Then there's the Hazratbali (also known as Benoni) which is one of the Valley's earliest apple varieties. Other options include the Maharaji (White Dotted Red), Chemora and Razakwari. So how come your pantry is filled with Red Delicious? As it turns out, you are not the only one.

Italy, the home of Slow Food, is also being over run by the big five. (Slow Food unites food communities and campaigns for food that is ‘good, clean and fair.') They represent 90 per cent of the country's production. Piedmont once produced thousands of varieties of apples. In the 1960s traditional mountain apple growing was replaced by intensive lowland plantations. Local varieties were replaced with foreign apples which the Almanac describes as “higher yielding, bigger, prettier and better suited to modern farming techniques.” It adds, “An enormous heritage was lost in just four decades.”

The story is the same in the U.S. Historically they had 15,000 to 16,000 named varieties of apples. Today only 3,000 remain. Of this number, about 94 per cent have been labelled ‘threatened' or ‘endangered' by RAFT (Renewing America's Food Alliance Traditions) alliance. Today, 11 types of apple represent 90 per cent of all the apples sold in most American grocery stores.

What's so terrible about having less than a dozen types of apples? Well, for one they're creating a monochromatic flavour for the fruit. Heritage apples have distinctive characteristics, some are tart, some are sweet. They come in different colours and ripen at different times. As consumers, if we're content to buy and eat just a handful of varieties, it's like opting for just one shade in a world of colour. Since commercially widespread apple strains are bred for popularity, they tend to be fairly straightforward — sweet, reasonably juicy and uniformly coloured, missing out on all the nuances that make fruit, and indeed food, interesting. Additionally, an analysis by the Piedmont Regional Authority states that the “old varieties of apples have higher nutritional value (three or four times as high) than the modern varieties in terms of both vitamins and polyphenols and antioxidants. “

Modern apples are designed for shipping, storage and shelf life. Taste is not always the most important point on the agenda. And history and heritage aren't factored in at all. Which means apples that historically grew in an area get replaced, despite the fact that they are already adapted to local conditions. This not only affects diversity. It also wipes out local recipes.

The Southern part of the Limburg region of The Netherlands was once famous for Stroop, a traditional fruit syrup made with 60 per cent pears, 40 per cent apples picked between September and October from the region's orchards. Today, four Limburg producers have decided to revive this old tradition and re-learn the laborious technique, which involved cooking fruit for between four and six hours in a copper cauldron among other things. As a part of this project it's important to restore the heritage trees, since their unique flavour is what makes this syrup special.

There are similar movements all over the world, as people realise they have to act now to preserve diversity. In Boston, an urban agriculture project titled the ‘Boston Tea Party' plants heirloom apple trees in public parks and civic spaces to create what they call a “decentralised public urban orchard that symbolises a commitment to the environmental health of our city.” And you thought apples couldn't be political!

Keywords: Himachal apples

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