Welcome CSA members–new and old–to the seventh year of Out On A Limb. Seven must be our lucky number because we have more fruit on our farm this year than ever before. That's partly because we plant more apple trees every year, but beyond that, there was an incredible bloom this spring, followed by a very productive team of native pollinators that sealed the deal.
That, however, was only the beginning. A bountiful fruit set means that a grueling schedule of maintenance lies ahead for organic orchardists. For us here at Super Chilly Farm, first comes the immune-boosting spray regime, then the setting of traps for insect pests, then the hand-thinning of fruitlets (removing some to let the rest get bigger), then lots more pest/disease management, then collecting premature "drops," then monitoring the ripening of each variety, then the harvest, then the tasting/recipe-testing, then the packing/distributing, and then this is where you come in! Of course, the whole process is a labor of love for us, and we're thrilled to share the harvest of this outstanding season with you.
We'll go out on a limb and say that you're going to love the fruits of our labor!
This week's picks:
Why is it that the hottest part of the season always comes in late August and early September just as the first apples are ripening? These early season apples have a short shelf life no matter what the weather, but cool days, such as those we had in July this year, would be just what they need to keep them around a few days longer. In an ideal world we would all be sitting under the trees, waiting to eat these apples as soon as they fell. But since we’re not, run, don’t walk to your nearest refrigerator and tuck these apples in as soon as you get them home. Then make a vow to eat them and cook with them as soon as you can. They will whet your appetite for the apple season to come.
Four of the six varieties this week were introduced by agricultural experiment stations in Minnesota, New York and Canada. You are unlikely to find any of them at your local supermarket, and even at local farm stands they are a rare sight. State Fair (which is the parent of Zestar) and Goodland are new picks this year so let us know how you like them. We think all three are good for fresh eating. Laura baked State Fair into a pie, and we gave it rave reviews for both flavor and texture – slices held their shape and did not turn to sauce. Does it rival our old favorites Duchess or [Red] Wealthy for the title of best early season pie apple? John wouldn’t even discuss the possibility, but you can decide for yourself.
Our apples come to you straight from the tree, so, as with all fresh produce, please be sure to wash them thoroughly before eating. Unless otherwise specified, the apples are grown using Integrated Pest Management by the orchards we collaborate with throughout Maine.
The Orchards of Super Chilly Farm
As an introduction for our new members and a refresher for our returnees, the Out on a Limb CSA is run by John Bunker, Cammy Watts, John Paul Rietz, and Emily Skrobis. The four of us all live and homestead at Super Chilly Farm in Palermo, ME, where we grow most of our own vegetables and loads of fruit (at least in a good year, like this one!). We all have other off-farm work and commitments but converge to work on the CSA come September.
Many of you may know of John Bunker from apple-related talks given all around the state each fall, or from the Common Ground Fair in Unity every September, where fairgoers can't help but flock to his eye-catching displays of historic fruit. Or perhaps you've heard of him as the founder of Maine cooperative Fedco Trees, which sells and ships cold-hardy trees, shrubs, and other perennials, specializing in, of course, apples. John's education and outreach through MOFGA events and Fedco Trees help create a demand for lesser-known apple varieties, and our CSA began as a way to serve the growing public interest in heirloom apples.
Why don't we grow all the apples ourselves? Since our orchards are not anything like a commercial orchard in scale or design, we most often piece together our pick-up offerings from our network of commercial Maine orchards that continue to grow some uncommon apple varieties (providing an incentive for orchardists NOT to cut down those weird, funky, previously unprofitable trees). This helps us collect the quantity needed to distribute to our maximum 150 members.
Our farm, on the other hand, is way less about production, more about diversity. It is essentially a germplasm respository – a living collection of apple genetics, not necessarily intended to stuff our cellars in the fall (though it's nice when it does happen). John's passion in fruit exploring was borne of his interest in apples, history, and free food. Once he realized that Maine's rich pomological history was fast disappearing with aging farmers and land development, he set out to collect historic varieties before they were lost forever. In more recent years, his collection has expanded to include wild seedlings from farms and roadsides and unnoticed modern breeding projects, and really, anything he deems to be of value, which could mean consistent yields, disease resistance, unusual flavor, or that it is simply excellent in hard cider. When he finds something of interest, he grafts them here on the farm to study them, carefully observing their bloom times, ripening dates, and general growth habits, and in some cases confirm their identities. “Part of preserving varieties is learning about them and you can't learn about them in a year or two,” John says. “If you're going to learn about them you have to be in it for the long haul.”
Somewhat recent acquisitions include Early Strawberry and Hurlbut (both located at the same farm in Searsmont), Maiden Blush (a really old cooking apple, found south of Portland in a subdivision, where by some miracle the old trees were still standing), Davis Purple (a stunning, deep purple fruit so named by the folks who own the property the tree sits on, and which now might be positively identified as a previously known variety, “Harmon”), and the modern Frostbite. We like Frostbite so much that it has its own mature tree, an honor shared only with beloved Black Oxford and Trailman (save for one branch of Redfield).
Such a collection complements John's Fedco work well, as during winter we cut scion wood (sticks of the previous year's supple growth, which is used to propagate each singular variety) from the trees to sell, some directly to Fedco consumers and some to supply Fedco's local growers who then graft young fruit trees to be sold after two seasons. Also, John's orchard observations become valuable, variety-specific growing information in the Fedco catalogs each year.
The farm is home to several hundred apple varieties spread out among over 200 trees, many of which were planted in the last five years in our experimental polyculture orchard and a newer cider orchard. Since grafting onto a mature tree yields fruit much more quickly than simply planting a new one, most of our bearing trees are crowded with diversity. Look closely and you'll likely find five varieties on one tree, a vinyl label dangling from each different branch. But amassing this grand collection takes up precious space on a homestead carved out of a woodlot, so though we squeeze in multiple varieties on single trees wherever we can, space is limited. Thankfully, MOFGA's exciting new Maine Heritage Orchard, which John spearheaded along with late MOFGA director Russell Libby, is dedicating a single tree to each variety in its growing collection. The orchard, sited in a reclaimed gravel pit on MOFGA-owned land in Unity, ME, will be an ongoing experiment in permaculture and a sustainable, centralized way to preserve fruit specimens and to ensure that these living genetic resources will be maintained for generations to come.
So, besides lacking mainstream cultivars (Macs, Cortlands, and the dreaded Deliciouses), our farm stands out because it is not a standard orchard with tidy rows of evenly-spaced trees, easily accessed by truck or tractor. Instead, it is a seeming hodge-podge of vegetable gardens, perennial flowers and herbs, with fruit trees scattered just about everywhere in between. We value a creative, organic approach to cultivating our land, instead of uniformity and production, and we tend to let a tree grow where it looks like there ought to be one.
John often encourages us to stop and consider how fortunate we are to be in such a unique situation - how miraculous it is to walk around the farm where so many different varieties are growing in one place! And it's true; everywhere we look here, tree limbs bend with the weight of such beautiful, prolific yields of once-common American heirlooms, traditional French cider types, and far-flung Estonian varieties, some of which we will be trying for the first time this year. So many colors, tastes, and textures to be found in these apples – often, the best uses for them yet to be discovered!
And the other night, as we partook in a seasonal pastime - how amazing it is that we get to sample and compare five single-varietal applesauces made from apples that few people have ever even heard of! We hope you feel that magic too, as you participate in our CSA during this remarkably bountiful fall. We thank you for giving these rare apples a place at your table.
New to the Out On a Limb crew this year:
Nick Libby is a first year MOFGA apprentice from Portland living and working here at Super Chilly Farm. Truly an adventurer, his first solo trip into the woods ended with him 70 feet up in a tree trying to find his way back. Fortunately for all of us, he returned safely, now he has to settle for climbing the many apple trees around the farm. He enjoys the treetops where he can survey the land around him and cast out positive energy as far as his eyes can see. Nick practices Reiki and has been experimenting with energy work and the use of crystals in the gardens. And finally being free from distractions has helped him to learn more about himself than he ever expected.
Recipe of the Week
It seems too hot to do too much cooking this week, so we have been eating a lot of apples fresh and experimenting with making them into sauce. But I did find a recipe to try that did not require much slaving over a hot stove. Browned Butter Apple Loaf was easy to mix up, and once I put it in the oven, I could forget about it until the timer went off an hour later. It calls for a mixture of sweet and tart apples. I used State Fair and Garden Royal, but you could mix in Duchess, Red Wealthy or Milton with the State Fair. I used four apples instead of three since they were small, and the loaf was loaded with bits of apple. The inside stayed moist while the top was a bit crispy. It paired well with all the applesauces that we made.
Brown Butter Apple LoafMakes 1 loaf
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp fine sea salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup crème fraîche or plain yogurt
3 TBS apple brandy, such as Apple Jack or Calvados
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 apples, cored and diced
1/2 cup chopped, toasted pecans Directions
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a loaf pan with butter or cooking spray.
Place the butter in a medium skillet and melt over medium heat. Continue cooking, swirling occasionally to prevent burning, until the butter is bubbling and golden brown with a nutty aroma. Combine the butter in a large mixing bowl with the sugar, brown sugar, and eggs. Whisk to combine.
Add the flours, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon, and stir with a wooden spoon until just combined. Follow with the crème fraîche, apple brandy, vanilla, apples, and pecans; the batter will be very thick.
Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top. Bake loaf for 1 hour. Allow to cool for 20 to 30 minutes before removing from loaf pan.
That wraps up week one! Any questions, comments, suggestions, or feedback from a formal tasting: firstname.lastname@example.org