THE extended heat waves of summer and autumn made this year’s apple crop a hit and miss affair, but here in a shady corner of Wonthaggi I had my best-ever apple season. Royal gala and Cox’s orange apple trees that had sulked ever since I planted them more than 10 years ago suddenly decided this was their season and produced bountiful, tasty crops.
Cox’s orange was the apple of my childhood, sharp-sweet and tantalising, but I had come to believe my childhood memory was an illusion, until this unexpected season. How interesting the flavour was! How different it tasted from the apples – pink lady, royal gala, fuji, golden delicious, Granny Smith and jazz – that the big two supermarkets have decided are our lot.
Tantalised by the taste, I decided to explore further. On a stinking hot afternoon in late autumn, I called in to Strzelecki Heritage Apples, an orchard and nursery about 10 kilometres from Korumburra, on the Korumburra-Warragul Road.
Margaret and Mark Brammar own the orchard, where they grow about 400 apple varieties, along with some 90 varieties of pears, 90 of plums and a dozen crab apples.
Margaret said everyone always asked her own favourite apples, but it would be a very long list indeed, perhaps starting with Cornish aromatic, Tasman's Pride, Andre Sauvage and golden Harvey.
Most of the apples had been picked by then but she took me to the cool store and gave me a golden Harvey to taste. It looked far from impressive: not much bigger than a golf ball and a drab colour that I now know as russet. It was also tart, sweet, aromatic and complex, like a very expensive riesling.
Margaret said their main aim, apart from making a living from their beautiful smallholding, was to preserve old varieties in danger of disappearing as the supermarkets narrowed their focus to five or six varieties.
"We started with 12 varieties from there and gradually built up. Some we collected. People told us about others. We did it as we could afford it and as time allowed around raising a family."
The golden Harvey dates back to 17th century England but their collection, now one of Australia's biggest, contains varieties ancient and modern from the US, Canada, Russia, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Japan and many other countries.
The Victorians looked at having fresh apples on the table for as long as they could and a variety of apples for different purposes: dessert (eating), cooking and cider.
The first one to ripen is Vista Bella, which arrives just after Christmas, and McIntosh early in January, right through to Cornish aromatic in April. The last ones are the Lady Williams, which arrive in early winter. "Once we were picking the Lady Williams and there was snow on the ground."
Margaret said every nationality had its own favourites. "The English always talk about the Cox's orange pippin as the best dessert (eating) apple and the Bramley as the ultimate cooking apple."
A true cooking apple breaks down because it's got less sugar and a better flavour. In her view, the Stewart's seedling is perhaps even better than the Bramley.
There's also a growing demand for cider apples. They list 12 varieties, including the mellifluously named improved foxwhelp (listed as "sharp" in the tasting notes) and the Kingston black (“bittersweet"), often considered the most balanced cider variety because of its flavour and complexity, combined with sweetness, acid and tannin.
They're certified to sell interstate, including Western Australia and Tasmania. Until recently, most of their sales were by mail order, but increasingly they're selling at local farmers markets at Inverloch, Koonawarra, Coal Creek and Warragul.
There's no need for a hard sell, Margaret says. They provide free tastings of the fruit in season and the trees sell themselves. It’s true: I ordered a golden Harvey tree on the spot.
Bare-rooted trees are available in July and August. Rarer varieties may have to be ordered for the next season. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 5659 5242 for a tree list.