| Apples, Orchards, The Apple Orchard, Writing

Say hello to The Apple Orchard

Part two of my Year of Writing Dangerously…*

Today my seventh book, The Apple Orchard, hits the shelves (hopefully. Please God let it hit at least some shelves.)

When I wrote World’s Best Cider in 2013 with Bill, that book required the short, sharp, snappy sections typical of the guide book: 60 words on a cider here, 500 words on that cider maker there, 1000 words on the history, and so on. My books are normally long-form narrative, and I found much of my best writing was on the cutting room floor, so to speak, because it didn’t really belong in the cider book.

More importantly, the best stuff – or rather, the stuff that interested me the most at any rate – wasn’t about cider at all, but about apples, the people who grow them, the places they’re grown, and especially the history and mythology around them. Once we finished researching the cider book, I found myself missing orchards, and desperate to find a way to spend more time in them.

 

So I decided to write about apples themselves. Not just cider apples, but eating apples and dessert apples too.

 

I wanted to trace the history of what we believe to be a quintessentially English fruit through both our real and imagined past. Because I quickly  realised that the apple is the the most symbolically laden of any fruit – indeed of any food. Across many different mythologies and religions, in popular culture and phraseology, the apple dominates. And it does so out of all proportion to its actual importance to our diet. Sure, we eat a lot of apples, but if symbolic importance was proportionate to dietary importance, the Beatles would have released their records on the Wheat label, and New York would be affectionately known as The Big Loaf.

 

I lost the whole summer of 2014 to the seemingly simple question of whether the Forbidden Fruit in the Bible was an apple or not. Genesis never specifies what the fruit was, but the Western World has believed it to be an apple since the Middle Ages.

Pieter Paul Rubens’ depiction of Eden and the Forbidden Fruit

And yet when Michelangelo painted the roof of the Sistine Chapel, he clearly depicted it as a fig.

Michelangelo’s Forbidden… er, Fig

This could have been a whole book in itself – I read many on the subject. And they brought me, via the Middle East, South America, The Himalayas, the North Pole, the Happy Isles and the Moon, back round to the birth of modern horticulture.

 

I decided to follow the apple through the course of a year. It has its big showtimes at blossom in May and harvest in October, but as with anything in horticulture and agriculture, apple growing is a year-round activity.

 

I learned how to graft and prune fruit trees. I picked apples in an orchard on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor, beneath which King Arthur sleeps, immortal thanks to the magical apples of Avalon.

 

I also discovered, on my very first orchard visit with Bill, that I’ve developed a very serious allergy to eating apples. Thankfully whatever is causing the problem is left behind in the solid, or ‘pomace,’ when apples are pressed, because I can drink cider, and also, happily I discovered I can drink fresh apple juice. There are 4000 named varieties of apple cultivated in Britain, and a tasting of single variety juices revealed to me the astonishing array of flavours they possess.

 

The book ranges from myth to genetic modification, from wassail to the economics of the modern apple growing industry through meditations on soil. It’s a personal journey though the subject rather than an exhaustive history, but that’s what my new editor at Penguin felt the book needed to be. We cut a lot of stuff out about mythology and history and how this supposedly English fruit was originally born in Kazakhstan, because the book would have been rambling and unfocused and 500 pages long if we’d left it in. But my journey through orchards still gives chance to touch on all these points.

 

I wrote some more about all this stuff in a piece for the Daily Telegraph’s weekend section last week. I’m going to be doing as many events as I can to promote the book though the autumn – another excuse to get back into orchards and near trees. (Now, I have a physical response to entering an orchard. I can feel my heart rate slow, my breathing deepen, my mind settle.)

I’m delighted to be recording an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme about the book next week, which is provisionally slated for broadcast on Sunday 9th October. (More details to follow when confirmed.) And I’m doubly delighted that BBC Radio 4 have also picked up The Apple Orchard as Book of the Week, to be read out every morning w/c 5th December.

I’m nervous about this, my first book that has no link at all to beer or pubs (although cider is made and consumed in the later chapters). I hope that even if you’ve never really thought that much about apples – as I hadn’t until I first entered an orchard with a notebook in my hand – you’ll find this fascinating and diverting. The apple is a complicated, mysterious treasure hiding in plain sight and trying to look boring, and its history shines a different light on the history of humanity, and what we believe in.

 

The photos in this blog were taken by me primarily as aides memoire while I was writing. the book is not illustrated.
* The first of the three books I very stupidly signed up to write simultaneously was The Pub: A Cultural Institution, which was published in mid-August 2016. The third and final book is my journey through the nature of beer – an exploration of hops, barley, yeast and water. I submitted a complete first draft of this to my publisher two weeks ago. This is the one through Unbound, which uses rewards-based crowdfunding to cover publication costs before publishing books in the usual manner. The book is due out in May/June 2017, but subscribers will get their copes as soon as it’s back from the printers, which will probably be a couple of months earlier. Even though the book is fully funded, if you want to get a copy of it before publication as well as other rewards, you can still subscribe here.

5 Comments

5 Comments

Phil

You've just missed my birthday, but that's definitely going on my Christmas list… if I don't give in to temptation & buy it myself before then. Sounds like fascinating stuff. Shame to lose any of the mythical/ancient history gubbins… but that may just be me.

Reply
PeteBrown

Good stuff! But the apple is all about temptation…

To be fair some of the myth stuff did get a bit repetitive. I've kept the very best bits in the book. May use the rest for blog posts.

Reply
Walter Haugen

“Sure, we eat a lot of apples, but if symbolic importance was proportionate to dietary importance, the Beatles would have released their records on the Wheat label, and New York would be affectionately known as The Big Loaf.”

Ah-ha! If you look at kilocalories of food value per acre (kcal/acre), or even kilocalories per hectare (kcal/ha), apples beat the hell out of wheat any day of the week. The usual metric for wheat is 2-4 million kcal/acre and the US average for apples is right around 6 million kcal/acre. [For those of you dealing with hectares, there are 2.47 acres in a hectare.]

As a small-scale sustainable farmer using hand methods, I have been able to get 3.8 million kcal/acre with spring wheat and 3.5 million kcal/acre with winter wheat. Barley and oats are in the 3.3-3.5 million kcal/acre range. In 2016, which was a bumper year for apples in Washington (where I live), I got 10.3 million kcal/acre and this year – 2017 – I got 5.17 million kcal/acre. This year the trees are taking a rest and we had some drought which restricted yields. I also have a young orchard, with most of my trees planted in 2007 or after. My average yield, from 2009-2017, is 4.49 million kcal/acre. My orchard is also dry-farmed, which means I am not using irrigation to pump up the size. I do water a couple of day some years to preserve the trees, as I did this year, but this did not increase the yield appreciably. Last year I did not irrigate the orchard at all.

Even if you look at the very high 2016 US wheat yield of 52.6 bushels per acre, that calculates out to 5.1 million kcal/acre (52.6 bushels/acre x 60 lb/bushel x 1608 kcal/lb =5,074,848 kcal/acre), this still does not come up to the US average (2000-2010) of 25,509 pounds/acre x 237 kcal/lb = 6,045,633 kcal/acre. It is hard to get up-to-date numbers on apples because of cold atmosphere (CA) storage and year-round release of the product. I know my numbers because I weigh them as they come in, not as I sell them.

So, from the standpoint of feeding people per acre, measured by kilocalories, apples win. As a side note, potatoes beat wheat too. This year I got 13.9 kcal/acre and the usual metric is 6-8 million kcal/acre.

[Disclaimer: I don’t have acres and acres of crops. I measure the values in square feet and standardize to acres as a way of comparison to industrial agriculture. ]

If these ideas and calculations intrigue you, check out my two books, The Laws of Physics Are On My Side (2013) and Hints for Managing Collapse (2014), available on Amazon UK and Amazon EU.

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