Concerns about the quality of grocery store fruits and vegetables are sparking interest in heritage/artisan and heirloom foods.
And that’s fantastic. But is it too late?
Let’s look to apples for perspective. North America was once home to 15,000 varieties and is now down to just 2500… with only about 90 or so varieties grown commercially.
In the 1920’s commercial orchardists began focusing on growing few varieties more efficiently, and as a result, many of the older cultivars fell into disuse.
Mass merchandisers now view apple varieties in terms of colour, disease resistance, shelf life, and their ability to ship long distances without bruising. Grocery stores often stock only one red, one green, and one yellow variety, which usually means 'Red Delicious', 'Golden Delicious', and 'Granny Smith'. And as any consumer knows, those big, beautiful, and perfect-looking apples often taste like sweetened sawdust.
The obvious choice - CHOOSE HEIRLOOM
There are a lot of reasons to grow heirloom apples, not the least of which is preserving heritage. Most heirlooms are varieties that were handed down from generation to generation and brought to America from other countries.
Well-known heirlooms include the Cortland, Empire, and Macoun, which are grown in the Eastern Canada and U.S. While these are the best known, they are certainly not the only varieties (by a long shot) so if you’re looking for trees for your own backyard, please look deeper into the various heirloom varieties still available.
What apples do we grow in Ontario?
- There are 15 different main varieties of apples grown on nearly 16,000 acres in Ontario. The province’s major apple-producing areas are along the shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.
- The top seven varieties in Ontario are McIntosh, Gala, Empire, Red Delicious, Northern Spy, Honeycrisp and Ambrosia.
Spotlight on apples: The Cortland
The Cortland apple is slowly regaining it’s popularity. It is considered a heirloom variety, of Malus domestica, one of the many offspring of McIntosh apples. It combines the sweet flavour of the McIntosh with the cold hardiness of its second parent, Ben Davis.
Extremely slow to brown when cut, the Cortland apple is perfect for use in fresh apple preparations because it is extremely slow to brown once cut, (slow to oxidize when exposed to air.
A great way to enjoy a cortland is cubed in a salad or sliced thin and added to sandwiches, burgers, and quesadillas. Another use is in lieu of crackers paired with sweet and savory dips or flavourful cheeses. The sweet-tart flavor also makes the Cortland an ideal choice for cakes, tarts, cobblers and galettes, as well as soups, sauces and preserves.
Cortlands also make excellent cider and juice apples. Downside? They don’t store too well, and should be eaten soon after harvest for best flavour and texture.
Cortland trees are known for their ability to thrive in cold weather and can be found growing in apple growing regions on the east coast, Washington State, Oregon, and Quebec and Ontario in Canada. They are also grown in France and Poland.
The loss of biodiversity necessary for the ecosystem to flourish is devastating. So can we recover? The good news is nature is always trying to regenerate. We simply have to let it.
Commercially speaking every time you purchase your apples from the grocery store you have supported the very system that has destroyed the 1000’s of varieties we once had.
What’s the solution?
Simple: Heirloom varieties. We can’t get back everything we’ve lost but we can buy as local as possible, as often as possible, to save what we have left.
Perhaps we now know the answer to the age old question, what do we have to lose? Indeed it has become obvious.
Now that we’ve lost so much, maybe we can admit, we must change our ways.
The choice is yours.
Small Scale Farms