The little apple has a big story

Apples from the Loriendale Orchard. From top: Fuji, Twenty Ounce, Topaz, Grimes Golden, Bonza, Blenhein Orange, Red ...
Apples from the Loriendale Orchard. From top: Fuji, Twenty Ounce, Topaz, Grimes Golden, Bonza, Blenhein Orange, Red Jonathan and Coxs Orange Pippin. Photo: Andrew Sheargold

The Romans discovered the art of grafting and budding apple trees. They set about selecting and cultivating new varieties that came from the eastern steppes near the Black Sea, in the foothills of the Caucasus. Over the centuries, western Europe produced hundreds of varieties from apple pips but many were sour.

In the Middle Ages, the Cistercian order had a practice of propagating and distributing good varieties to its network of 300 abbeys. However, when areas were overrun by the barbarian marauders, apple orchards were generally destroyed or left to go to wrack and ruin. Anyone who grows fruit trees in their backyard will know that the trees need to be nurtured and reshaped year by year, to secure a good harvest.

The apple is one of few fruits that can be transported and stored. It is also one of the most versatile fruits, being eaten fresh, cooked, baked, dried and also turned into juice and cider.

Apple growing in Australia began in the earliest days of European settlement. Trees were brought across from the Cape of Good Hope in 1791. Then in 1792, Captain Bligh stopped off at Bruny Island and the ship's botanist planted three apple seedlings along with several apple and pear pips. It took just another 90 years for Tasmania to begin loading up huge sailing ships with cargoes of Tasmanian apples to head to the markets of England.

Many is the time that a visitor will ask: ''What is your best eating apple?'' To this I will generally reply: ''Do you like to eat sweet apples or tart apples?'' That one question will narrow the field but you will find that many folk have their own heritage with apples. And there are apples that are best for making apple sauce, apple pies, apple crumbles and apple tarts.

If a person is seeking a particular apple, you can often guess their heritage. Folk from England will invariably seek out the cox's orange pippin for eating and the bramley for cooking. People who emigrated from the Netherlands still look to find the cooker called belle de boskoop. Americans are very keen to find their historic McIntosh and Canadians seek out the spartan apple, which is an offspring of the McIntosh, from back in 1926. Older folk who grew up in Victoria still seek out the snowy apple.

Even with these few, well- known heritage varieties there are many tales to tell. Blenheim orange is a large, attractive apple with skin that is orange and red blushed, excellent for both fresh eating and cooking. It was raised some 270 years ago in the town of Woodstock, near Blenheim Palace - where Winston Churchill was born. The famous little snowy apple (pomme de neige) with its bright red skin and really white flesh has travelled the world before arriving in Victoria and now the rest of Australia.

A little apple of distinction from Tasmania is the geeveston fanny. This arose in the town of Geeveston near Hobart back in the 1870s and is a pretty flushed and striped apple that is crisp and sweet to eat. Finally, let's mention the golden delicious. It arose in 1890 as a chance seedling in West Virginia and is now one of the most widely grown apples around the world, especially in France. When picked fresh it is very crisp and sweet. It's also been used for breeding many wonderful modern apples.

At Loriendale there is growing, in order of maturity, ginger gold, new gold, smoothee, firmgold and goldrush. Mutsu was bred in Japan in 1949 by crossing the golden with the indo apple. The pink lady has the golden as one of its parents.

There are many apples that can be used in cooking. Some, like the granny smith, which originated in Sydney in 1868, will cook to a puree. The belle de boskoop is one of the most famous European apples, discovered in 1856 in Boskoop, Netherlands, as a bud sport (variant) of the reinette de montfort. It cooks down to a fluffy golden yellow puree. And there are many cooking apples from France in the reinette family. The calville blanc d'hiver cooks down to a pale creamy puree and is considered to be one of the best baking apples and is ideal for making ''tarte aux pommes''.

Loriendale now has more than 120 varieties of heritage and modern apples growing in its orchard.

Apple production in the Canberra region this season is down quite significantly, with only small supplies available from one or two of the Pialligo orchards. Loriendale was also severely hit by the late October frosts but there is still a good harvest to be won. The annual Apple Day at Loriendale Orchard is set for this coming Saturday, starting at 1.30pm. There will be freshly squeezed apple juice and a selection of some 20 mid-season apple varieties available to visitors, as well as Devonshire teas with country scones and cakes, French crepes with apple sauce and barbecue with organic meat supplies.

This event also raises money for a number of community projects, from a school in Nairobi to a hospital in Nepal and a college in Darwin.

Stuffed apples with lemon syrup

6 medium golden or mutsu apples

40g butter

1 tbsp brown sugar

100g sultanas

2 tbsp chopped pecans or hazelnuts

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 cup water

Lemon syrup

2 cups water

⅔ cup castor sugar

2 lemons, juiced and zest grated

Peel the apples and remove the core with an apple corer. Preheat the oven to 200C. Mix together the butter, sugar, sultanas and nuts. Press the mixture into the core of each apple. Place the apples on a medium-sized baking dish. Mix the lemon juice and water and pour over the apples. Cover with foil and cook for 35-40 minutes, until tender. Brush with the juice occasionally during cooking.

Prepare the lemon syrup by combining the ingredients and placing into a small saucepan. Bring to simmer until liquid reduces to one cup.

Serve while still warm, with a generous ladling of the syrup over the baked apples.

This week

■ Plant out kale, leeks, mizuna and lettuce. If you have space, plant some English spinach and the multicoloured silverbeet.

■ Begin to sow green manure crops in spent garden beds or plant nitrogen-producing field peas, snow peas and broad beans. Keep picking up fallen fruit and removing any infected fruit, to break the cycle of diseases and pests. A clean orchard floor is a very valuable part of garden hygiene.

■ Use the sunny days to rebuild and enhance old garden beds after the summer harvest. Where you have noticed poor drainage, dig a drain and fill with rubble and lay an agricultural pipe which has many small holes, to provide better drainage.

■ This is also a good time of the year to create raised garden beds by using sleepers or other hardwood timbers as a perimeter barrier. Avoid using treated pine because it contains poisonous chemicals.

>> Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Orchard near Hall.