“There’s small choice in rotten apples”, says Hortensio in Shakepeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. But among over 7,000 varieties of good apples grown worldwide there is immense choice.
Almaty, in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau Mountains in Kazahkstan, was the country’s capital until 1997. Its old name Alma-Ata means “father of apples” in Kazakh, staking a claim to being the place where the wild apple Malus sieversii first grew.
Recently, following studies of the fruit’s genome, that claim has been substantiated. The partly unpronounceable Malus Sieversii is the ancestor of Malus domestica and a European variety called Malus sylvestris. Scientists even believe that the forests of Kazakhstan still hold genetic secrets that could help develop better strains of apple today.
Apples were grown for thousands of years in Asia and Europe, dating back to Phoenician times. Brought to North America by European colonists, according to the well-known story they were spread throughout the Midwestern states by John Chapman – known as Johnny Appleseed – who set up nurseries there in the early 1800s.
Wild apple trees differ in appearance from their prim cousins. Some are small, some tower 60ft or more. Some go back 160 years, surviving in multi-stemmed tangles and fruiting every 10 years or so covering cover the ground in a thick carpet of rotting apples that perfume the neighbouring forest. Bears gorge on the fruits.
Those who have eaten wild apples in Kazakhstan say they taste faintly of honey. Depending on which plants were cross-pollinated by bees, the genetic make-up of any given fruit would have slowly changed. This process, as with all wild fruit, results in a mix of chemical compounds and volatiles in the apple itself that are responsible for individual flavours.
One variety of wild apple in particular used to be associated with Alma-Ata. The aport (or oporto) is a huge, red-skinned apple which became the city’s symbol. Introduced into Alma-Ata in 1865 by a migrant worker named Igor Redko, it flourished at the higher altitude and doubled in size. Poor horticultural practices, the collapse of collective farming after the break-up of the USSR, and the construction of suburban housing on land formerly given over to apple orchards have led to its rapid decline. Growers are currently trying to revive the variety.
American writer Henry David Thoreau, a pioneer of natural history and protecting the environment, once contributed a long essay on “Wild Apples” to The Atlantic Monthly (November 1862). He noted the commercialisation of apple growing and the pleasure when out walking of finding apples that “have hung in the wind and frost and rain till they have absorbed the qualities of the weather or season.” He wrote:
“To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air. The out-door air and exercise which the walker gets give a different tone to his palate, and he craves a fruit which the sedentary would call harsh and crabbed. They must be eaten in the fields, when your system is all aglow with exercise, when the frosty weather nips your fingers, the wind rattles the bare boughs or rustles the few remaining leaves, and the jay, is heard screaming around. What is sour in the house a bracing walk makes sweet. Some of these apples might be labelled, ‘To be eaten in the wind’.”