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Hearth to Hearth: The Orchard Harvest Begins

Hearth to Hearth: The Orchard Harvest Begins – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – July/August 2003

by Alice Ross

Orchardists work year round for a brief season of plenty. Their success depends on months of pruning, grafting, fertilizing, spraying, keeping down weeds, and replanting. The harvest season (presuming it has not been a disastrous winter) brings a sense of opulence that is hard to beat. All those sweet and fragrant fruits appear to fall into one’s lap as if they are a gift directly from the gods. One would be tempted to do nothing but drown in their redolent pleasures if it were not for the hard work of gathering them in and putting them up for winter. How sad that so many of us today, limited to local supermarkets, have lost the true joy of plucking and eating fruit in full flavor, right off the tree.

These basic satisfactions are hardly new. Fruit has been treasured from earliest times—pomology was one of the innovations of ever-developing agriculture. The arts and crafts of the orchard were practiced early; ancient Greeks and Romans planted imported dried figs to establish their own groves (the tiny seeds germinated in the ground), and they similarly grew such other tree-borne fruits as apples, pears, plums, pomegranates and mulberries. Aeons of far-flung conquest introduced Europeans to peaches, apricots, nectarines, and citrons from the East, and contributed to the range of what could be produced locally. By the time of the European Renaissance fruit-growing reflected centuries of experimentation and evolving horticultural practices, tools, and varieties, each adapted to local conditions. Grafting had become the most important tool of propagation as seeds rarely grew true; it involved cutting short sprigs of the desired fruit tree and inserting and tying them into slits cut into the host tree—usually one chosen for its hardy and sturdy roots. With good wrapping and regulated moisture, the wounded parts merged and healed into one viable plant, a genetically-identical clone that enabled the spread of superior species throughout Europe. A series of other strategies made it possible to extend the agricultural zones of certain trees—for example, in areas where the growing season was short, espaliered trees were pruned and trained flat against trellised walls for maximum sun. This rich European heritage was carried (in the form of slips, root stocks and seeds) to the New World, where orchards became standard resources on family farms and a symbol of excellent management. Peter Kalm, mid-18th-century botanist traveling in the colonies, noted the presence of orchards everywhere, a sharp contrast to Europe where only the wealthy kept them.

It has been obvious to orcharists that the fruit of certain trees was superior, being borne more heavily, more flavorful, of the desired juiciness and texture, ripening early, middle, or late season, or storing longer. A kind of selectivity and perhaps inadvertent hybridizing guided the development of different strains. By the 18th century, William Prince of Flushing, Long Island, then the most erudite and important orchardist in the New World, ran a booming business and sold grafted orchard stock to customers throughout the colonies. Among these was Thomas Jefferson, who purchased a number of trees, including Esopus Spitzenburg, the apple of New York origin that was to become his favorite. Prince’s catalog was extensive; his 1793 listings included graftings of several hundred varieties including over 30 apples and 33 pears, numerous cherries, plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, figs, and quince, a mixture of older European strains and newer “discovered” American ones.

Orchards demanded work. Men tended to do the heavy work of maintaining the trees, while women did the comparably heavy work of utilizing their produce. The fruit must have been worth it. Colonial cooks put up pots of jams and preserves if they had access to expensive sugar, and indulged in pies, puddings, and sauces. Root cellars held fruit that did not require sugar for preservation; fruit presses juiced some for conversion into something alcoholic, and many a hand peeled, cut, and strung pieces that were dried for winter use.

In the 19th century, farm chores were still arduous but somewhat different, as the work-saving cook stove, canning jar, and great numbers of geared cast-iron peelers broadened kitchen horizons. Farmers expanded their orchards, turning more of their land to fruit growing and sending great quantities to city markets.

Rural families continued to process fruit for their own table; city dwellers who benefited from such efforts no longer grew their fruit but bought it by the bushel, each in season, to put up for winter use. Both used the early canning jars (from the start called “fruit jars”) that were devoted more to orchard crops than to the results of vegetable patches or annual butchering. Summer kitchens removed the heavy work, heat, and clutter from the house kitchen, and sometimes offered the space for storing special peelers, corers, and slicers, along with large canning kettles, basket racks, and reusable canning jars. At first these were sealed with gasket-like rubber rings placed between jar rim and lid (reusable zinc or glass lids, later to be replaced eventually the familiar two-piece composition lid in use today). Incidentally, zinc lids came with “re-formers,” a threaded ring that corrected any damage caused by breaking the seal of a previous usage, and reshaping them into their sealable form. (I would love to obtain one- does anyone out there know of any?) Geared and belted cherry pitters, peach peelers, and apple parers, clear adjuncts to abundant fruit and new canning technology, completed the trilogy and speeded up the work. Jelly-bag stands and assorted strainers eliminated the need for extra sets of hands. Despite the helpful gadgetry, and no matter how well ventilated the summer kitchen might be, it was still hard work but a valued contribution out-of-season dishes.

By the end of the 19th century, a contradictory theme was surfacing. In hard contrast to the heavy work engendered by orchards, urban consumers were now courted with promotional images that romanticized fruit picking. An entire range of trade cards portrayed young women and children who seemed to be more involved in fun than work. They were usually dressed in delicate fashions and carried graceful baskets—almost like innocent mythological nymphs of the field, or French royalty playing at shepherds and shepherdesses before their Revolution. A reconciliation of these opposing images suggests that commercial canning—Heinz , Van Camp and such—were working at truly penetrating the urbanized kitchen, taking over, and replacing home canning with a bucolic, no-work product.

Today we face other issues. With pressure to produce in quantity, modernizing commercial orchards focused increasingly on the bottom line. Old varieties of orchard fruit have been scrapped, particularly if they did not carry their weight (sometimes literally). Some peach branches were so laden with heavy fruit that they bent to the ground and sometimes snapped. They needed labor-intensive propping and were not always economically sound; likewise those that bore heavily only every other year or could not withstand shipping were not lucrative enough. And so such fine varieties as Belle of Georgia, a white and heavily perfumed peach verging on a very fragrant apricot, began to disappear. The produce sections of supermarkets were just about down to Macintosh (great eating in the orchard, but quick to deteriorate once picked) and Delicious apples (good for storing and winter eating only), a pitifully small choice, until the recent resurgence of interest in heirloom varieties. Now it is sometimes possible to buy some of those wonderfully-flavored Gravensteins, Newtown Pippins, Snow Apples, and Wealthies that were once commonplace in home orchards and to choose the one that would work best in a particular recipe. (Snows don’t brown when cut and are great in salads.) And although Greenings (the standard pie apple) and crab apples (tangy miniatures for pickling or jellies) appear to be almost lost to us, a number of new varieties are taking their places. Most encouraging is grower concern with quality, variety, and the ability of fruit to hold its texture and flavor despite under-ripe picking, lengthy storage, and shipping; most dismaying is the public demand for perfect-looking fruit and the pressure on orchardists to use chemicals that do not always wash off.

Today we are still in love with the sweet harvest. Throughout the country orchards are opened to the public on a pick-your-own basis, a system that has helped orchardists deal with the shortage of seasonal labor just as its appeal to the consumer is about good prices, quality, and family outings. Of course, the new system also has in its favor the flavor and texture of the fruit just picked combined with the pleasure of tree, sky, meadow underfoot, and the sounds of the natural world.


If you find yourself drowning in abundance and hard-pressed to use up the fine fruit before it spoils, you may wish to try one of these historical guides.

This early cherry recipe reflects the influence of Medieval spicing. The mustard is surprising in a sweet dish but helps to bring up flavor, and you may find it interesting. Note that the sweetened syrup is added after baking, which probably keeps the crust from getting soggy.

Recipe: To make a close Tarte of Cherries

Thomas Dawson, The Good Housewives Jewell London, 1596
Take out the stones, and laye them as whole as you can in a Charger [mixing bowl], and put Mustard in [and] Cynamon and ginger to them , and laye them in a Tarte [pan? bottom crust?] whole, and close them [cover with pastry], and let them stand three quarters of an hour in the Oven [probably 425 degrees], then take a sirrope of Muscadine [sweet red wine], and damask water [rose water or flavoring] and sugar, and serve it.
This recipe tells us that quinces, like other orchard fruit, produced in quantity, and being so demanding of sugar (the proportion of sugar to fruit being heavier on sugar than most such recipes) that it may have been a specialty of those of means. If you can get your hands on quinces, you may want to reduce the quantity. Figure that one peck is equivalent to eight quarts, or a fourth of a bushel.

Recipe: For preserving Quinces

Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, 1796

Take a peck of quinces, pare them, take out the core with a sharp knife, if you wish to have them whole; boil parings and cores with two pounds frost grapes, in 3 quarts water, boil the liquor an hour and an half or till it is thick, strain it through a coarse hair sieve, add one and a quarter pound sugar to every pound of quince; put the sugar into the sirrup, scald and skim it till it is clear, put the quinces into the sirrup, cut up 2 oranges and mix with the quince, hang them over a gentle fire for five hours, then put them in a stone pot for use, set them in a dry cool place.

Eliza Leslie’s recipes were always written in great detail- perhaps because she saw that young women were no longer spending their youth at home learning from mother, and therefore needed to learn all the secrets as adults. She is consequently the modern food historian’s dream.

These preserved crab apples were a favorite of the late nineteenth century when pickles and condiments were a good cook’s stock in trade. Quantities are given in proportions so that you can manage with however many you have.

Recipe: To Preserve Red Crab Apples

Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery, 1851

Take red or Siberian crab apples when they are quite ripe and the seeds are black. Wash and wipe them, and put them into a kettle with sufficient water to cover them. Simmer them very slowly till you find that the skin will come off easily. the take them out and peel and core them; extract the cores carefully with a small knife, so as not to break the apples. Then weigh them, and to every pound of crab apples allow a pound and a half of loaf-sugar [white sugar] and a half pint of water. Put the sugar and water into a preserving kettle, and when they are melted together, set it over the fire and let it boil. After skimming it once, put in the crab appales, adding a little cochineal powder [red food coloring] rubbed with a knife into a very small quantity of white brandy till it has dissolved. This will greatly improve the colour of the apples. cover them and let them boil till clear and tender, skimming the syrup when necessary. Then spread them out on dishes, and when they are cold, put them into glass jars and pour the syrup over them.

The flavor will be greatly improved by boiling with them in the syrup, a due proportion of lemon juice and the peel of the lemonds grated so as to have the yellow rind only. If you use lemon-juice put a smaller quantity of water to the sugar. allow one large lemon or two smaller ones to two pounds of crab apples.

If you find that after they have been kept awhile, the syrup inclines to become dry or candies, give it another boil with the crab apples in it, adding a tea-cup full of water to about three or four pounds of the sweetmeat.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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