Up until the advent of the huge stock truck in the early 1980s, sheep and cattle were moved around New Zealand by drovers. With a horse and a swag, these hardy types would walk their mobs to the sale yards, often taking weeks, sometimes months to reach their destination.
My husband Ted (who has done some droving in his time) tells me they used to call it “grazing the long acre” – the sides of the road offered free pasture, so were a good way to get the stock to market in good nick.
The legacy of these drovers can be found in the many wildling apple trees that grace the verges of our highways and byways – as they walked they would discard their apple cores on the side of the road, and over time these have grown to mature fruiting trees.
The best time to discover these wildling trees is in the spring, when their distinctive pink blossom pings out in the landscape – as the season progresses and they turn to leaf, they seem to disappear into the landscape.
In this episode of my television show Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures, I visit one of New Zealand’s foremost heritage apple experts, Dieter Proebst, at his orchard in Nelson. He has more than 220 apple varieties growing organically on his five-hectare orchard, so it was a treat to be able to compare their different properties and uses and learn more about how apples grow and reproduce themselves.
If you want a specific apple you have to graft it, as apples are a fruit that won’t grow true from seed. The Romans figured out how to graft apples way back when, with the result that for thousands of years specific varieties of sweet apples have plied their way around the trade routes of the world.
The fascinating thing about apples is that each of the seven or eight seeds in each fruit has a completely different blueprint and produces a tree and fruit totally different from its parents or siblings. From a single tree, there is the potential for several thousand entirely different and unique apple trees. It’s a clever thing on the plant’s behalf, as Michael Pollan points out in his fabulous book The Botany of Desire, for it has meant that the apple can be successful almost anywhere in the world, from Kazakhstan to New Zealand and most of the bits in between.
I’ve got my own little map of my favourite wildling trees around the Wanaka and Hawea district – one has a russety brown skin and is a great baking apple and keeper, another is small, tart and crispy, and the best is classically red, sweet and crunchy, but doesn’t keep well.
Come autumn, if you can remember the spot you saw that blossom, you could be in for a pleasant surprise. In my book, there are few things more satisfying than foraging. Getting to harvest something free and good, especially something that no one else seems bothered about, always makes me feel pretty pleased with myself. It has to rank as one of life’s simple pleasures.
In this episode I use Dieter’s apples in crunchy Cinnamon Apple Fritters, then in the Apple and Berry Sorbets that I serve as a refreshing finish to a fiesta-style feast of Mexican Pulled Pork served with Smoky Chilli Beans, Chunky Guacamole and Fresh Flour Tortillas.
To see behind-the-scenes photos, recipes, video clips and the menu from this episode see the TV pages of my website.