Mystery of the pink-tinged pomme
Jane Hanks reveals the production methods and ideal recipes for the famed Limousin ‘Golden’, a prize pick among French apples
Golden Delicious apples grown in the Limousin are the only apples in France to have the prestigious Appellation d’Origine Protégée, AOP label. They are grown by 200 producers in 2,300 hectares of orchards in an area covering 100 communes in Corrèze, Creuse, North Dordogne and Haute-Vienne.
They are picked by 5,000 seasonal workers every year in mid-September to October but keep well and can be found in the shops from November to September.
Apples are the favourite fruit in France accounting for 19.5% of the market, ahead of bananas at 13.3% and oranges at 13.2% and the favourite variety is Golden Delicious, accounting for 28% of sales, with Gala and Royal Gala next at 22%.
Golden Delicious arrived from the USA in the fifties and are grown throughout France, but they produce the best fruit in the orchards of the Limousin, which are at an altitude of between 300 and 500 metres high. The geographic situation and climate with sunny days and cold nights seems to suit the variety, and it was soon observed that the apples in the region were particularly delicious, sweet and crunchy. In 2005 the French government awarded them the label AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) which was a French label existing before the European label, AOP, which it was awarded in 2007.
Patrice Blanchet is an apple producer at Coussac-Bonneval in the Haute-Vienne. He has 25,000 trees on ten hectares, which he says is an average size for an orchard. He says Golden Delicious in his region are special: “Like a wine which depends on its terroir, our apples owe their special characteristics to where they grow.”
A notable feature of the Pommes du Limousin is a reddish pink tinge on one side of the apple. “This is down to nature and we have no control over it”, says Mr Blanchet. “It appears when there is a sufficient difference between the night and daytime temperature. If it is around 14° in the day and then drops to around 1° at night, the next morning you will see the pink tinge, which is there as if by magic. In some years it is more pronounced than others – it purely depends on the weather.”
The heaviest work load for Mr Blanchet is during the harvest which lasts about three weeks in September and October. Thirty extra workers are employed and all the apples are picked by hand.
The apples are sent to a local co-operative which deals with apples from around 50 producers. The next job is to clear away the leaves and to fold back the nets which cover the trees for some of the year. They protect the fruit from hailstorms which can ruin a crop in minutes.
Pruning takes place from December to March and needs great skill to keep the best fruiting branches and to maintain the tree at a manageable height. March, when the buds appear, is important and the farmer has to be on the lookout for disease. In April, the trees are in flower – it is an important time for pollination.
In the past beekeepers brought their hives to Mr Blanchet’s orchards but now he is building up his own stock to keep all year round on the premises. He says he needs three hives to each hectare and that the bees are of vital importance. Without them, there would be no fruit: “Looking after bees is a specialist activity so I hire local beekeepers to look after them, but they are my hives. If they are in good health that is an indication to me that the surrounding environment is as well.”
April is also a crucial month because late frosts can destroy the crop. In 2012 his trees only produced 30 tonnes of bad quality apples out of an expected harvest of 300 tonnes because the flowers were killed by frost. This year he says a late cold spell at the end of February was welcome because it will mean the blossom will be late with less chance of a repeat of 2012.
In May the nets are put back on the trees. Extra workers are brought in in June and July to help select the best potential apples and discard any that are small, deformed or crowding others. August is the wait and see month, and then comes harvest time.
“A great deal of my job is about observation in the orchard to check on the health of the trees. We are often criticised for using too many pesticides and people often associate our apples with chemicals.
“However, I cannot stress strongly enough that since I started working in apple orchards in 1988, things have changed massively. Now we do everything we can to preserve our trees using alternative methods and we will only spray if absolutely necessary and if there is disease we can control in no other way. Every day I have deer and pheasants on my land, and it is a pleasure to see them as this shows we are looking after the environment.”
He uses many different methods: “I have planted hedges to provide a habitat for the insects like ladybirds and shield bugs we want to attract because they will help us control unwanted pests. We clear away leaves in the autumn so that the fungus, apple scab, which is one of our worst enemies, is less likely to develop in the rotting leaves.
“We use a light spray to prevent a kind of moth which lays eggs in the fruit from mating so their caterpillars do not eat the fruit. It is very difficult to keep the balance, but we try. The public can meet producers in many of our orchards and we will happily explain how we look after our trees.
“It is a very satisfying job when you see the apples as your end result. You are working with nature and in nature and there is always something to learn.”
The ideal ingredient
A local chef, Charles Martel uses the local fruit for many of his recipes which he serves up at the Auberge de Concèze, Corrèze. He also cooks for the village school, which has just 20 pupils, and on the day I spoke to him he had made the children an apple tart: “Chefs like to work with Golden Delicious because they are very easy to use in the kitchen,” says Mr Martel. “They are good both raw and cooked, have a regularity in their flavour and a good sugar balance. They are very adaptable and can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes.
“They work well in an apple tart and the one I made today had slices of apple arranged on a bed of apple purée mixed with powdered almonds and flavoured with vanilla.
“My favourite apple desert is very simple. Quarter the apples. Sauté them in butter and then cover with brown sugar, called in France la Vergeoise or sucre cassonade belge and which is the type of brown sugar you can find more easily in the UK and comes from beet rather than sugar cane. Serve with vanilla ice cream. I also use the apples in a local desert eaten through the winter which is like a cherry clafoutis but with apples and is called a Flognarde.”
Mr Martel also uses apples in savoury dishes. One of his favourites is a dish with pheasant. “Cook the pheasant with the apples in a pan. The legs will take around 35 to 40 minutes and the breast a shorter time. Deglaze the pan with some Armagnac and add a small amount of cream if you like. Serve with shredded cooked cabbage with thin slices of uncooked apple scattered over the top. Simple and good.”
The Auberge de Concèze and Patrice Blanchet’s orchard are both on the Route de la Pomme du Limousin AOP which suggests places to stop and taste apples used in local restaurant menus and in July and August there are free visits to orchards and fruit co-operatives every Thursday. Booking is necessary by telephone on 05 55 73 31 51 or online at the website www.pomme-limousin.org
On August 2 there will be a 10km walk plus visits to orchards, a lecture on the history and geology of the area and buffet with regional specialities and Pommes du Limousin (cost €5 for adults).