An apple, pear or plum, on an old English estate, was coddled like a pet. A rough shake of a branch would not have been used to sever the fruit from the tree, only a gentle twist of the hand, or an assist from a padded basket on a pole. A seasoned practitioner would have done the job.
In an age when most fruit was grown at home, the care of fruit after harvest was an art as well. Two excellent books that chronicle food-growing in grand old farm estates — “Charleston Kedding” by Susan Campbell and “The Victorian Kitchen Garden” by Jennifer Davies — give us a glimpse of “fruit rooms” where the culinary jewels were stored, kept at an ideal temperature of 40 to 45 degrees. (Modern fruit growers recommend going colder, just above freezing.)
The fruits were set out, often in just one layer, on slatted wooden shelves. To separate them from any packing material such as straw, says Campbell, “the finest fruits were laid only on the best writing paper” so that they picked up no unwanted odors.
That ambitious setup is beyond the scope of an average gardener with a backyard apple tree or two. But reading up on past techniques is a great reminder of what good food husbandry can be. Anyone can take a little time to sort through the harvest and set aside the fruits that are least blemished and therefore most likely to keep well and long. At our place, the earliest apples, such as Summer Rambo, are eaten first, since they are not good keepers. Of the storage apples like Spigold and Golden Russet, the damaged ones go to the pigs or to the compost pile. Slightly blemished ones are trimmed and turned into applesauce and cider.
A root cellar is theoretically a great place to store the rest, but the ethylene gas that apples give off can cause deterioration in any vegetables that share the space with them. So for the best apples I designate a small spare fridge near the kitchen, where they can be checked from time to time to eliminate any that go bad, lest they take their neighbors with them. I usually just put them in a plastic crate, though an optimum method for storing the fruit might involve using plastic mesh plant trays, the kind that nurseries sell annuals in, and stacking the trays with lightly moistened towels between them to raise humidity.
It’s not His Lordships’s fruit room, but it’s worth a try.
I use the biggest apples first, for eating and baking. But now it’s March, and there are still quite a few left. Lately I’ve been putting a bowl on the table to encourage the healthy habit of an apple for dessert. They don’t keep more than a week that way, but I’ve found that even when a bit mealy or spongy, they can be cored, peeled and sliced into rings. These I brown slowly on both sides in butter, and they make a fine garnish for breakfast or any meal that contains pork — bacon, sausage, pork chops or pork roast. They are just sweet enough to be a foil for the meat’s fattiness, and they cook slightly better for not being crisp and young.
Damrosch's latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Last year’s growth of liriope or lily turf should be removed now before this season’s leaves emerge. Hedge shears are the best tool for this job. The clippings can be added to the compost pile, but discard old leaves that have been damaged by de-icing salt.
— Adrian Higgins