Edible Vancouver - Almost Spring 2014

The Luckiest Apple In The World

By Eagranie Yuh 2014-01-16 09:24:42

How Ambrosia Beat the Odds PERHAPS YOU'RE READING THIS WHILE CURLED ON the couch, a ginger cat purring on your lap as your left foot falls asleep. Maybe you're at the doctor's, impatient for your appointment and wondering if you should put more money in the meter. These are the everyday moments that we collect, that lead us to other moments – some of them equally mundane, some utterly unexpected. For Sally and Wilfrid Mennell, two orchardists living in Cawston, BC, things changed the moment they discovered a surprise seedling in the late 1980s. As the seedling grew, it became clear that it was different from its neighbours. Fruit pickers, hired for the harvest, ate its rogue apples, and when they came back the next year, they asked about the little tree that bore crisp, sweet, cream-coloured apples with a red blush. The Mennells tasted one and named it Ambrosia: food of the gods. Sally pronounces Ambrosia with four syllables ("am-bro-zhee-yah"), chewing on the last two syllables in her low, slow voice. "Wilfrid jokes that if he had been more conscientious about weeding, he would have gotten rid of it," she says. Luckily, the seedling grew in exactly the right spot – two inches in any direction and it probably would have been sent to the compost bin. But the truth is, its good fortune began long before it poked its head out of the ground. Apples do not grow true to seed. That is, if you plant an apple seed, you are unlikely to get the same type of apple from which the seed came. This uncertainty is highly impractical for growers, so they propagate commercial apples by grafting. In tandem, an apple-breeding program at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre (PARC) in Summerland aims to develop new apple varieties through systematic crossbreeding. The odds of getting something exceptional out of controlled breeding? About 1 out of 100,000. Here's the thing: Ambrosia did not come out of PARC's controlled breeding program. Instead it came from a chance seedling: a random soup of genetics from a lucky apple seed that found fertile ground, took root, and took advantage of Wilfrid Mennell's lackadaisical weeding. The story could have ended there, had the Mennells not found a partner to help them commercialize their new-found apple. They knew that Ambrosia tasted good, but the road to commercialization is long and complex. Sally says, "We were fruit growers in Cawston. We didn't have a clue what [the process] was going to be like." That's where the Okanagan Plant Improvement Corporation, or PICO, comes in. Formed in 1993 by the BC Fruit Growers' Association, PICO has two mandates: to provide growers with high-health budwood for grafting, and to manage and license the intellectual rights of plant breeders. "Before [PICO], we had this world-class breeding program, and those varieties went across the globe and then competed against our growers," says Nick Ibuki, operations manager at PICO. In 1996, the Mennells signed an agreement allowing PICO to test the Ambrosia apple in the field and license it to growers. It turned out that Ambrosia is perfect for the Okanagan, where the warm days and cold nights create a crisp, sweet, bicoloured apple. The apple also performed well in packing houses, and stored well over the winter. Now it was a question of getting people to buy it. "We knew … it was very difficult to launch an unknown variety. Promotion money comes from the variety itself, and you have to do a lot of promotion and testing up front," says Sally. It's a circular argument: you need money to promote the apple, but you need to promote the apple to make money. Again, the story could have ended there, but the growers who tested Ambrosia liked it so much, they took the unorthodox step of paying a levy on each box they sold. In the process, they formed the New Varieties Development Council (NVDC) and funneled the money back into promotional campaigns. And their timing couldn't have been better. Shortly after the NVDC was established, The 100-Mile Diet came out; suddenly, people couldn't get enough of local. When it comes to BC apples, buying local is key. In recent years, our apple industry has been in crisis. Growers lose money with some types of apples, but new varieties like Ambrosia and Pink Lady have been reliable moneymakers of late. Last summer was particularly bad, as hailstorms damaged many crops. And of course, there's our proximity to Washington State – one of the largest apple-producing regions in the world. That's why PARC is scrambling to find the next big hit, and why Okanagan apples are now grown almost exclusively on dwarf rootstock, which are 35 per cent smaller than standard trees. Smaller trees are easier to manage, and can be planted more densely for higher yields. "I love the beautiful old-style orchards with big, spreading trees," says Sally. "But in terms of a commercial proposition, [high-density planting] is much more efficient." While the Mennells had known Ambrosia was special, it's clear they had no idea how special it is. Case in point: in 2000, they travelled to New Zealand to a meeting of the International Fruit Tree Association. Sally thought Ambrosia would be among hundreds of other varieties in development. It was one of five. Reflecting on the 20-plus years since she and Wilfrid discovered their rogue tree, Sally says, "This has been a huge learning curve … it's taken us to parts of the world we never thought we'd go to, and we've learned more about reading a legal contract than we could have imagined." These days, Ambrosias are grown all over the world, as far afield as New Zealand and Chile. They're popular in Vietnam and Thailand – and of course, BC. Back in Cawston, in Sally Mennell's apple orchard, the mother tree still stands: the chance seedling that beat all the odds. "We are incredibly lucky that it is a really good apple," she says. Eagranie Yuh is fascinated with the sex lives of apples. She's the author of The Chocolate Tasting Kit, which will be published by Chronicle Books in spring 2014. Photographer Melissa Quantz is most often found in the kitchen, at the farmers' market, or sharing the bounty of the season around the table with friends and family – find her work at thebountyhunter.ca CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN-ADVENTURE SAUTÉED APPLES FROM EAGRANIE YUH I like cinnamon as much as the next person, but when it comes to apples, I am staunchly opposed. In fact, I'm heading up a revolution to celebrate apples in their naked, unabashed glory. I invite you to join me, starting with this – slices of apple, sautéed in butter. They're simple, delicious, and standing by for tasty adventures. Serves four 2 Ambrosia apples 1 tsp (5mL) unsalted butter 1/4 tsp (1mL) sea salt Peel and core the apples, then slice each one into eighths. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Gently place the apple slices, flat side down, and cook for 8–10 minutes, until lightly browned. Flip the pieces over and continue to cook for another 5 minutes, then sprinkle evenly with salt. You may have to adjust the heat so the butter doesn't brown too much. Note: For a bit of added luxury, add 2 tablespoons of brandy, apple cider, or cream to the skillet for the last 5 minutes of cooking. Be careful if using brandy, as the alcohol can flame up. A FEW IDEAS FOR SAUTÉED APPLES • Eat them with a fork, straight out of the pan, while staring at the dirty dishes on your counter. • Serve them warm, next to pork chops and a green salad. • Whizz them around your food processor for applesauce, which is great on pork chops, yogurt, or a spoon. Or, fold the applesauce into softly whipped cream (stop before they become one; swirliness is pretty), and serve in dessert bowls with crushed vanilla cookies on top. • Spoon them, piping hot, atop a scoop of the best-quality vanilla ice cream you can afford. (I'm partial to Earnest Ice Cream's Tahitian Vanilla.)

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