From William Tell to Snow White, from apple sauce to New Zealand’s massive export industry, you just can’t avoid running into these nutritious little orbs. Skye Wishart takes a bite of the Malus domestica.
Words Skye Wishart
The apple – the star of stories from the Garden of Eden to the Greek myths and now one of the most widely consumed fruits around the world – actually came from the slopes of the Tian Shan mountains of Kazakhstan. There Alma-ata, the old name of the capital, means ‘father of apples’.
The apple has about 57,000 genes – more than twice as many as humans have. And in 2010, when a team of scientists from New Zealand, Italy, France, Belgium and the USA decoded the apple genome, it was found that the apples we eat today are closer to the wild apples of Kazakhstan than they are to wild European apples – the explanation being that silk traders would have carried them from Kazakhstan west to Europe and east to China.
In New Zealand, apple trees, along with pear trees, first arrived in New Zealand in 1819 with the missionary Samuel Marsden, and were planted at Marsden’s mission settlement in Kerikeri. The country’s oldest fruit tree, near the Stone Store, still bears fruit today.
Whether for eating, cooking or making cider, apples have been chosen throughout their history for size and sweetness. In this way, modern apples have slowly emerged. In recent centuries, any distinct new varieties which surfaced were seized by enthusiastic breeders and cultivated. If varieties weren’t created by purpose-grafting existing trees or by cross-pollinating, sometimes new apples would come about from a rogue tree grown from a seed or pip (this apple is called a pippin) which happened to have a new scrumptious offering. A common example of this is the popular Cox’s Orange Pippin.
At other times, a single branch or flower of a tree (called a sport) might have had fruit that were completely different to the rest of the tree, and that branch could be cut off, grafted, and a new variety born.
Apples might be old, but it doesn’t stop them being a superfood. There’s good reason why the saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is still around.
Apples have high levels of pectin – a soluble fibre in the apple flesh which lowers cholesterol and fat in the blood – which works alongside a whole range of plant chemicals, such as phenolics (found mostly in the skin) to stop fat clogging the arteries and prevent spikes in blood sugar. This synergy between fibre and chemicals is why it’s important to eat the whole apple, rather than simply peeling or juicing them.
Interestingly, Dr Nigel Perry, researcher at Nutrigenomics New Zealand (a joint project between Plant & Food Research, AgResearch and the University of Auckland), says phenolics are higher in many heirloom varieties of apples. These more astringent qualities have been bred out in many commercial cultivars in order to achieve a sweeter, more edible apple.
Apples are also a great dieting aid – it has been shown that if you eat an apple about 15 minutes before a meal, you will tend to feel satiated and therefore take in a lot fewer calories (even after accounting for the calories from eating the apple).
Apples could even help guard against irritable bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease. Dr Perry says there are some amazing compounds called triterpene acids, again found mostly in apple skins, which are anti-inflammatory. “I’d definitely go for eating more apples – and eat the peel,” he says.
When to pick?
While everyday gardeners simply taste-test to see if their apples are ripe, commercial growers have this down to a science. They look not only at colour and firmness, but also at soluble solids and starchiness, which will all be different for each variety. It’s tricky – if the apples are picked too early, the flavours and aroma won’t be right. If the apples are left too late on the tree, they can become soft and greasy-skinned – yuck.
In New Zealand, the picking season is from February (with varieties such as Cox’s Orange Pippin) through to April (with varieties such as Granny Smith), each lasting three to four weeks. Most of our apples are grown in Nelson, Hawke’s Bay or Otago, the perfect apple-growing climates.
Store-bought apples are generally kept in cool storage for many months. If the apples are chilled down very soon after picking, and kept away from ripening gases such as ethylene, they have a rare ability to stay this way for a long time without losing nutritional quality. They can even last in a home fridge for six weeks or so without withering – as would happen with, say, a carrot.
There are more than 7,500 types of apple worldwide, including wild and heirloom breeds, and New Zealand scientists are rather good at creating their own unique varieties. Royal Gala and Braeburn are still the biggest apple crops grown in New Zealand, with new varieties being developed all the time. Below are some common ones on sale in our shops:
A yellow apple with a pink blush, it’s sweet and crisp to bite. Gala was created in New Zealand in the 1930s by experimental orchardist James Hutton Kidd in Greytown, Wairarapa, who crossed varieties which were growing on his orchard. It’s a combo of Cox’s Orange Pippin, Golden Delicious and Red Delicious. Gala wasn’t commercialised until the 1960s, but since then went on to become one of the most popular apples in the world.
In the 1970s, a branch carrying redder apples was spotted on a Gala apple tree and this ‘sport’ was cut off, grafted and named Royal Gala. These days it’s the second biggest apple crop grown in New Zealand and its firm, sweet white flesh and crisp bite means it’s possibly even more popular around the world than the plebeian Gala. It is picked from late February until late March.
A fast-growing export variety that has only come to market in the last five years. Medium-sized, tangy-sweet, crisp and juicy, Jazz came from a 1980s cross of Braeburn and Royal Gala, made at HortResearch. Jazz is one of the more dense apples for its size. In New Zealand, Jazz is picked from early March to early April, but ENZA (formally the New Zealand Apple and Pear Marketing Board) has also planted it in the USA and Europe to ensure a year-round supply.
Semi-sweet, juicy and crunchy, the Braeburn is orange-red with a bold red stripe. It was discovered by chance growing as a seedling in the Moutere Hills near Motueka in 1952. It’s thought to be a cross between Lady Hamilton and Granny Smith, but no one really knows. Braeburn was first grown commercially in Braeburn Orchard, its namesake. Picked in late March and April, it’s now one of New Zealand’s biggest export varieties and natural variations of it include Aurora, Eve and Mahana Red.
A bright green apple with crisp white tangy flesh. This is an old Australian variety discovered in 1868 by the elderly Maria Ann Smith, growing on the orchard she and her husband owned, in an area that’s now a suburb of Sydney. Granny Smith, as it came to be known, was thought to have grown from a discarded crabapple pip. It was first cultivated by Maria Ann, as she found the apple good both for cooking and eating. After her death, it was adopted on a greater scale, spreading in popularity to become the world-famous apple it is today.
The Pink Lady
When the Western Australian John Cripps crossed Golden Delicious with Lady Williams in the 1970s, this is what he came up with. Green with a pink blush over the top, The Pink Lady is medium-sized and manages to be both tart and sweet at once. The name is thought to have come from Cripps’ favourite novel The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat – in which the main character was partial to a cocktail called a ‘Pink Lady’. It’s best picked in April.
This apple is sweet, and can be coloured with anything from a soft pink stripe to bright red all over. Fuji started appearing on shelves around the world in the 1960s. It came from a combination of two American varieties, Red Delicious and Old Virginia Ralls Genet apples, which were crossed in Japan in the late 1930s. It’s picked in March and April.
Rosy pink in colour with yellowish flesh, the Pacific Rose is typically sweet, very juicy and extremely crisp. It was developed in New Zealand in a HortResearch breeding programme which crossed Gala with the New Zealand heritage variety Splendour. Pacific Rose was released for sale in 1992, and is picked in April.