Cultivar identification and fruit sharing

With so many varieties growing in the domestic gardens of Aurillac and its surroundings, identifying the name of an apple can be difficult. But is it a priority for those who aim at sharing their fruit with other gardeners and fruit users?

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Early September, at an organic fair here in Aurillac, I witnessed a conversation about fruit identification which made me question the need for knowing the names of the apple cultivars people grow in their domestic gardens.

The question popped up again during the following weeks when someone came to help me identify cultivars in our family orchard, and when I started to give surplus fruit to our friends and neighbours.

Below is what I drew from the two experiences. What do we need to know about our apples that will be useful to the users of our fruit, and how can we develop this knowledge?

Cultivar identification, Aurillac’s organic fair, 9 September 2018

On 9 September 2018, I visited Aurillac’s annual organic fair and stopped by to see my colleagues at the Croqueurs de Pommes1 stall. While I was saying hello, a couple arrived with a sample of apples from their garden. They wanted to know the name of their cultivar.

Visitors often ask the ‘Croqueurs de Pommes’ about cultivar names, as the association is dedicated to the preservation of old fruit varieties, in particular apples, and therefore know well about what’s growing in the area. Photo 2017 organic fair, 3 September 2017, Aurillac, France.

People come with fruit they want to show…

… and our fruit specialists try to identify which cultivars they belong to.

In this particular case, the answer was not easy to provide. The apples were pale green, rather big, not fully ripe yet, except maybe one which started to turn pale yellow. It was not one of the most common cultivars we find locally and the lack of ripeness prevented us from figuring out enough about its distinctive characteristics.

After a while we risked a name, but were unsure. The conversation went on. We learnt that the couple’s tree was old, big, was planted a long time ago by their elders. Their orchard was located next to their house on the hills just above Aurillac and they had other cultivars. 

We soon realised that we had common friends, which opened up the conversation. I started to argue that maybe the cultivar name in itself was not the most interesting part of the identification of these apples?

When do they ripen? Are they juicy? What do they taste like? Do they keep for a long time? Is it worth cooking them? These questions were more relevant in my view, as they were connected to how the fruits are used rather than just the cultivar name.

I suggested that recording these elements year after year would enable them to learn more about this apple and be in a better position to share the information with us or any person they would like to talk to.

I also said I was keen to see their apple trees. We exchanged phone numbers. I look forward to meeting them again in their orchard.

I now realise we didn’t ask what this couple was aiming for with this fruit identification. Was it a pretext for a trendy conversation about productive gardens or were they really interested in figuring out about this particular cultivar? Did they want to find out for themselves, or did they wish to talk about it with their family, friends, or neighbours? Do they give away or exchange some of their fruit?

In any case this conversation started to make me think that finding out the name of a cultivar is not the top priority for someone who wants to share fruit with others. Knowing what to do with the fruit and being able to communicate it to someone else is more relevant in my view.

Cultivar identification – our family orchard, 19 September 2018

We have six apple cultivars in our family’s small orchard near Aurillac. As I am only sure of one of the cultivar names, I asked one of our local experts at the Croqueurs de Pommes to have a look at the trees and the apples. He came on 19 September.

Four of our six cultivars. Far left: culinary apple, makes a very tasty compote, sharp when not sweetened. We usually start to use it in November/December. Left: dessert, sweet and juicy, ripe in September. Right: russet apple, dessert, distinctive nutty taste, firm, ripe at the end of October, keeps well. Far right: an apple with a fragrant skin and delicate taste, bruises easily, which we harvest in September. We don’t try to keep it, we eat it within a few weeks. Photo 9 September 2018.

I was particularly interested in the two cultivars to the right side of the picture, for different reasons.

  • Our russet apple: identification for propagation purposes

I wanted the russet apple to be identified because I find it delicious and would be pleased to see it propagated. The Croqueurs de Pommes organise an annual graft wood exchange event early March. I tried to contribute to it by offering scions from that tree last year. Unfortunately I was unable to provide the exact cultivar name so couldn’t do it (see our January 2017 post ‘sharing graft wood‘).

Now the expert has come, looked at the tree and taken the right fruit samples for further investigation, the cultivar can hopefully be clearly identified. My graft wood may be welcome next year.

  • Our special, fragrant apple: identification for consumption purposes

The apples to the far right of the picture were also of interest to me. They are of a rare variety in my view, beautiful, fragrant and with a delicate and complex taste.

I wanted to know more about this cultivar for myself, as I have been particularly attracted to these apples but didn’t really know why.

I also wanted to be in a better position to talk about them to other people, in particular those I would give fruit to.

This apple cultivar, of a pale green to pale yellow colour and with an almost transparent skin when picked, turns pink in the sun. Photo 15 September.

The expert quickly gave me a name for it. It was a Belle Rivet, one of the 600 cultivars that grow in Cantal according to his sources. “The shape of the tree is also characteristic”, he said.

I carried out further investigation online and what I found out left me doubtful. Was it really a Belle Rivet? Fruit cultivar identification is so difficult sometimes.

Anyway, what interested me most with this variety was the fruit itself, in particular its complex skin fragrance and delicate taste. A friend of mine from the mountains near Aurillac, who knows about this apple and likes it very much, was also keen to find out.

I decided to bring a sample of the fruit to another friend in the city, a creative perfumer trained at Isipca2 in Versailles. We spent half an hour smelling and tasting the apples. We found a quince aroma but more delicate and slightly aniseed, and a taste of rose reminding of the wild blackberries we find in our mountains.

To me, the most significant learning from that experience is that I felt a wealth of sensations which I can now talk about. This week, I gave a few of these fragrant apples to friends who live down the road and sometimes give me honey. They loved the aroma and flavour story.

Build practical knowledge for sharing purposes

I would say that the most important thing is to build our sensory experience and practical knowledge of the apples little by little, through observation and experimentation.

We can taste the fruit at different stages of maturity. It is good to do it with people around. As with my friend the perfumer, a shared experience and conversation help. Try and cook the fruit, make some preserves, cakes or pies, dry it. See what can be done, be creative and record the recipes.

Do the fruit keep well? When is it usable? Timings are important too, as storage conditions.

Record evidence of our learnings is useful to us. Sharing it with our peers will provide guidance to best use the fruit we give them.

Fruit identification websites and books can be used as tools to complement our learnings from local observation. Vocabulary, images, usage, historic and cultural references come together as very useful information to get a meaningful picture of the fruit we have in our gardens.

For instance, FruitID3 is a work-in-progress website accessible to anyone, which currently provides a description of 419 apple cultivars found in the UK and contains high-resolution pictures of them.

Illustrations such as Rosie Sanders’ in her Apple Book4, beyond their aesthetic qualities, highlight the distinctive characteristics of the cultivars.

This is a book often referred to in the UK, describing 144 cultivars growing in the country. Photo  28 September.

Overall, by combining these elements we can build a deep understanding of our apples and how we use them, which we can share with people we give fruit to. I believe there is a good chance they will do the same in return, with apples or something else.

Knowing the name of someone’s apples is handy but useless if none of the protagonists who benefit from them are aware of their specific qualities. In that case, just calling them apples would be enough, at least in usage terms. Surely, fruit enthusiasts want more than that, so that they can enjoy the variety of apples available to us and build meaningful relationships with other gardeners and fruit users.

  1. https://croqueurs-national.fr/en/ (accessed 30 September 2018)
  2. https://www.isipca-school.com (accessed 30 September 2018)
  3. FruitID website, description of one of the best British apples, the Cox’s Orange Pippin: http://www.fruitid.com/#view/532 (accessed 30 September 2018)
  4. http://www.rosiesanders.com/about/ (accessed 30 September 2018)

2 thoughts on “Cultivar identification and fruit sharing

  1. I hope it will not be long before genetic analysis will be inexpensive and readily available, so that it will be easy to get a definite identification of cultivars. In the meantime, I sometimes follow a tip I learned from writer Carol Deppe: if you’ve found a really good variety and researched it and you’re still not 100% sure if it’s an existing named variety, just give it a new name. The thinking is, it’s easier for other people to deal with a situation where two names are synonyms for the same variety, than for there to be different varieties that are distributed under the same name. Usually the names I give are simple ones like “Eric’s Purple Fig”, that are likely to get replaced by the more proper name, if and when that name is found.

    • Thank you Craig. I like the tip and the thinking behind it. Claude, the gardener I was talking about in my last article, named one of the peach varieties he grows in Aurillac a Bessières de Vézac, composed of the name of the person who gave him the stone (Mr. Bessières) and the village (Vézac) where the tree grows / the person lives (I need to check with him). This improves traceability.

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