It's too easy for us heirloom fruit enthusiasts to speak with distain about contemporary fruit varieties. "They're bred only to survive the rigours of travel," we'll frequently say. "There's no respect for flavor."
Well truthfully, there is something to be said for having your fruit survive the rigours of travel. This was a major concern to the Heirloom Orchardist. A responsible orchardist didn't want his order of apples to arrive at its destination as a mass of fetid applesauce. Which, by the way, happened too often.
So, when I come upon an old farmer who really took pride in his packing, I have great repect. It gives me a new perspective on what it was like to grow and sell fruit during the days of the Heirloom Orchardist. The following comes from The Farmers' Cabinet, and American Herd-book, Volume 11, Nov 16, 1846:
"About the autumn of the year 1836 or '37, I had some thirty or forty barrels of apples to pick. In the orchard with some other fruit trees were some Newtown pippin trees...It was a "bearing year," as farmers call it, and there was a great crop of apples; and I had very few wormy ones."
"We picked the apples by hand, and did not pour them from one basket to another without putting soft hay or oat straw between them. While pouring them we put straw on the floor of the room in which they were stored; there was also straw put on the bottom of each basket, and on the bottom of the cart we carried them in; all this was done to keep them from bruising."
"After they were all housed, we set to work to sort them, rejecting all which had any defects, and if damp, wiping off the moisture. We next took each apple and rolled it in coarse clean paper. The paper had this effect—it keeps the apples from rubbing each other, and keeps them at a certain degree of moisture, not allowing them to evaporate or receive damp. In the bottom, and around the sides of the barrels, a small quantity of straw was placed, and the apples laid in, one at a time, and as close to each other as they possibly could be, without jamming them. When the barrel was filled, a little more straw was put on the top, and the head of the barrel put in, with an inside lining hoop, to keep the head from being knocked in, by accident. These apples were put up to order, and were to go to Sheffield, in England."
"After taking all these precautions, I wrote a direction to this effect: 'These barrels of apples are not to be rolled or tumbled about; if carted, or sent any way by land, something is to be put on the floor of the cart or wagon, so as to keep them from being bruised, rattled, or jolted.'"
"The apples when packed in this way, were tight in the barrels, and could not be made to rattle with common usage. M. C. W., who ordered them, informed me that they arrived at the destined place, and were all sound to an apple, and much admired by the consignee for their preservation and manner of putting up."
"People may talk as much as they have a mind to about the heat and damp of ships, and so on, being the cause of the apples rotting; but who could expect that an apple, or any other fruit or vegetable could be kept from it, if jammed or bruised constantly."
Unfortunately, this orchardist's account in The Farmer's Cabinet doesn't mention how large his orchard was. I'm guessing some of his colleagues may have said "sure friend, you can go to all that trouble with only 30 to 40 barrels of fruit....but last year I packed 200 barrels. I can't spend that much time packing."
And this orchardist would have politely replied: "you may want to hire a few more good men, or reduce the size of your orchard."
Just prior to the turn of the century, the use of barrels for transporting fruit started to wain. Promoted by the US Dept. of Agriculture, orchardists began using a new-fangled method of packing apples in boxes. This improved the packing process, and the quality of the fruit upon reaching its destination. It seems that apple growers started to take more pride in their product. The development of colorful fruit labels showed-up on the crates. Today, these labels are highly sought-after for their decorative quality.
(Apple picking images courtesy of the National Apple Museum)