It’s qvitten time at Stonegate, not only because an early October frost took out the last of the leafy greens and brought a quick end to the season, but because the Quince (or Quitten in German) have ripened to a phosphorescent yellow in the orchard and begun to blette, turning their bitter starch to sugar and rendering themselves finally, and sweetly, edible.
Quince: Lumpy, astringent, unforgettable.
Bletting is a form a decay, really; the same transformation that turns sour and bone-hard medlars sweet and wine grapes into Sauternes. The French have a poetic word for this metamorphosis, of course: pourriture noble, or noble rot. Maybe something similar happens to the lucky few of us as we age – we sweeten!
Quince fruit begins as a pale, pleated blossom in early spring and evolves into an oblong sphere of hard, unforgiving firmness; its fleecy rind, its strange knobs and bumps, its astringent flesh don’t hold much promise until late in the season when they transform themselves.
Or those that haven’t been plundered do. I have a handful of quince that survived the season, but many were plucked early from their boughs by the orchard’s arch enemy: The squirrel. For a few days in early October, winter-provisioning squirrels sacked and plundered the last of the orchard fruit, but they left me a few quince. Maybe it’s just too firm and heavy and oddly lumpy for their tastes, or their larder was already full of contraband fruit, so why bother?
I watched helpless as they scampered down from tree-top burrows and leapt in furry, frenetic arcs across lawn and fencerow to the orchard, where they grabbed any fruit they could, giddy and snickering to be sure, and buried it somewhere as a cache for a January pear gelato or sub-zero cobbler.
The apples were the first to go. Small and firm and full of Fall promise, most of them were pilfered by mid-August. So my CSA (Compulsively Sacked Apples) fruit never made it into the weekly shares, and the reliable ebb and flow of dearth and plenty at the farm goes on.
After a plunder by squirrels, only the evocative names remained. Here, Sucré de Montlucon, an historic pear variety, is nothing but a plant tag and limbs.
The few quince I have I will covet and try to transform into an aromatic jam, jelly, or paste, something that’s been done for centuries. In fact, quince culture long predates that of apples or pears, other pome fruit in the same family (rosaceae), but somewhere along the way lost favor and are now a rare find.
All the more reason to grow them here at Stonegate Farm, where the obscure will always have a home, where quirky botanical history is relevant, and where the squirrels eat like kings. –Mb
In the orchard of my imagination, well-ordered rows of pear, apple, plum an quince have by now turned delicate spring blossom into sun-burdened fruit; heavy on the branch, swollen by a long, sweet-tempered season. And, despite all the dire chatter about the difficulties of organic orchard management, my fruit is flawless.
The heirloom apple, Swaar, in fruit at Stonegate its first season. A tease or a sweet harbinger?
Then you channel surf into the Real World. Truth is, I lost half my English gooseberries and a third of my hybrid black currants to root rot and anthracnose fungus, and my plums and cherries barely broke bud before succumbing to some scourge or another.
Nineteenth Century Newburgh luminary Andrew Jackson Downing knew something about fruit. As the author of the authoritative Fruit and Fruit Trees of America, he championed the cultivation and preservation of heirloom varieties, and would have played Quixote to the bland, shippable selection at most markets.
In his description of the apple Swaar, one of twenty three Downing-described varieties we’re growing here, he says:
“This is a truly noble American Fruit, produced by the Dutch settlers on the Hudson, and so termed from its unusual weight, from the Low Dutch, meaning heavy. It is one of the finest flavored apples in America, and deserves extensive cultivation, in all favourable positions.”
And cultivate we will, and then some. New posts and wire have gone in this week to add even more varieties to the mix. They were purchased from a time-worn, scrappy lumber yard off of rt. 84 with an unshaven proprietor who bobbles about in a golf cart and seems to slink about your ankles as you load up your truck, purring approval at every purchase.
“Great posts. White cedar, straight as hell. And the wire’s imported from Germany. Last you years.”
Then he sizes you up to see how many years you may, in fact, have left. Orchards presume longevity, after all.
Fall has started to paint the garden.