Feeling Fruity. Tales From An Abruzzo Orchard
When we moved into our Abruzzo property in early 2009, one of the things I wanted to do with the waiting acre of mud was to lay out a decent sized vegetable patch – and an orchard.
I’d always grown veg, but in the small patch of the garden we left behind in Somerset, the only fruit I’d managed to squeeze in were three apple trees; a damson and a greengage; some raspberry canes; a clump of rhubarb; and a couple of figs in a pot.
Now, with the luxury of space, I wanted to expand a bit, with a mixture of what I’d never been able to grow in the UK; and what I had been able to grow in the UK – and fondly imagined I could get to grow in Italy too.
While I’d grudgingly accepted it was simply going to be too hot for raspberries, I couldn’t see any reason at all why apples and rhubarb shouldn’t flourish alongside peaches, grapes and apricot.
And that was cardinal error number one, before I’d even broken a fork trying to get to grips with the unyielding blue clay that covers our south-facing bit of Abruzzo.
The alarm bells maybe should’ve started tinkling when it became clear that the only garden tool capable of coping with clay was a mattock; while I had to enlist Rocco to do a bit of primary work with what’s splendidly known round here as a motozappa – but which you might know better as a rotovator.
Then in went four heritage variety English apple trees; a damson; a greengage; red, white and blackcurrants; and rhubarb, all mail-ordered and expensively imported from the UK.
And from local fruit-suppliers here came yellow and white peaches; apricot; and a grapevine.
My English figs were freed from their pots and planted – as were cuttings I’d taken of two different types of figs growing outside the house we’d rented on our arrival here while Villasfor2 was being built.
That was six years ago. And there have been successes – and failures.
The most epic fail has been with the apples. And I now know why they’re not grown in Abruzzo. Unless you spray, spray and spray again – which I won’t – springtime blossom is eaten by a particularly nasty bug called Oziorrinco.
Consequently, the fruit bowl was an apple-free zone. But I did feel righteous.
Whatever fruit did develop usually succumbed to summer. In a first-time twist this year, after I’d gone against all food-growing principles and finally succumbed to spraying, the resulting highly-promising developing crop was literally baked on the branches by unprecedented 40˚ temperatures throughout July.
Now I know why Italian apples are grown in the cool climes of the Alto-Adige region. (Sad they’re all beautiful-looking, tasteless, commercial varieties). I really should cut my apples down as in six years, I’ve had about six edible fruit. But us gardeners are continually driven by optimism. There’s always next year…
The other total non-event – rather surprisingly – has been the locally-sourced white peach. A martyr to Peach-Leaf Curl – despite whatever remedies I try – coupled with sullen fruiting.
I actually would cut this down but for the fact a nearby Briar Rose is now spectacularly growing through it, gaining support from its feeble little branches. So it’s been reprieved.
The white currant produced one prodigious crop; decided it had done its bit thank you very much; withered; and died. The blackcurrant’s going the same way. Even an average Abruzzo summer’s too hot and try. But the redcurrant’s not bad at all, regularly producing enough good fruit to make redcurrant jam to go with slow-roast Abruzzo lamb.
Yes. Redcurrant jam. Not jelly. a) I don’t have a jelly-bag; and b) even if I did, I truly can’t be bothered with all the fritzing around that goes into making jelly. Undeniably tasty. Undeniably time-consuming. And redcurrant jam and lamb actually tastes pretty damn good.
After an uncertain start, the rhubarb’s kind-of doing OK. It emphatically isn’t a hot-climate plant, but after planting out in open ground – and then rescuing it in the nick of time when it was at death’s-door – it’s now sitting in a massive pot, where I can cater to its every whim for moisture and feeding. And with those two givens, some full-on direct sun doesn’t seem to do any harm. Yields are small – but enough for a few annual rhubarb-and-strawberry crumbles.
When it comes to the ‘some like hot hot’ fruit, place several ticks next to damson, apricot, yellow peach, grape, pomegranate and fig.
Damson seems unknown here – (perhaps because it must be cooked to be edible ?) – but does spectacularly well. Looks lovely too, with its smoky blue bloom. Reliably bumper crops ensure plenty of delicious damson jams and crumbles.
Greengage is fine. A little uncertain in its cropping, but the fruits it does yield are succulent and syrupy, cut with just the right amount of acidity.
The apricot – an Italian variety called Reale de Imola – is sublime. But infuriatingly fickle. Good crops only seem to occur every other year, but when they’ve been good – they’ve been massive, with more than enough fruit to stuff your face with, and also turn into jam.
Confusingly, although bought here, the yellow peach is an American variety called Flavor Crest. Nothing – and I mean nothing – quite matches the taste of a fully ripe yellow peach, picked when warm from the sun and eaten immediately. This is a pretty vice-free tree, in that spraying keeps the dreaded Leaf Curl at bay and cropping is reliable and generous.
Too generous in fact, as developing fruit needs to be ruthlessly thinned to provide the perfect crop of tennis ball-size peaches. And in addition to being sublime right from the tree, it makes great chutney. (Did I mention I have an inordinate fondness for Peach Chutney ?)
The trio of unqualified successes are the grape, pomegranate and fig. All of them sun-lovers.
The grape is a Muscat-type fittingly called Italia, pruned and trained in a method pleasingly called ‘the four-arm knipf’.
I get the four-arm bit. Seen front-on, (and back-on too, come to that), the vine looks like a World War I biplane. But unless this bit of grape husbandry was invented by a Mr/Ms Knipf – haven’t a clue as to this part of the technique’s title.
At present, the vine produces four big bunches of grapes a year, greeny-gold, with that matchless perfume and flavour that only Muscat grapes can provide.
Once you’ve got the pruning method fixed, grapes actually seem pretty easy. All you really have to do is keep their natural exuberance in check – and not get too greedy by trying to produce too many bunches.
The figs also pretty much look after themselves. Again, they need fairly rigorous pruning to keep in check – and some water too when it gets particularly dry.
More by accident than design, I have three varieties. One called Brown Turkey – the figs originally brought from the UK in pots. OK – as opposed to outstanding – in terms of size of crop and quality/taste of fruit.
The unnamed black fig I took as cuttings is the best of the lot in terms of crop and taste. It’s in fruit right now. Ripe figs and Gorgonzola – or a creamy, tangy goats cheese – plus maybe a glass of port. Sinfully good.
And the third is another unnamed late season variety, but producing green figs of huge size. Like mandarin oranges, rather than the golfballs produced by the other bushes. Almost too much of a good thing really as their intense sweet stickiness can actually be a little overpowering.
One is my limit…
And the pomegranate. Beautiful tree. Beautiful fruit. And now that I’ve come across a recipe in which they’re an integral ingredient – rather than just a garnish – a valuable late summer/early autumn addition to out home-produced supply.
Success. And failure. But the lesson about not trying to grow which actually doesn’t grow here has been well-learned. And amply compensated by what grows a treat – and is delicious to eat.
Supermarket fruit is grown for uniform size; resistance to travel without bruising/blemishing; and keeping qualities. Grown in controlled environments; and picked well-before fully ripe, no real surprise that most are pretty – but pretty tasteless too.
So instead, try growing some fruit yourself. Not difficult. Intensely satisfying. And in terms of taste, the best you’ll have ever had.