Fruit: the good, the bad and the ugly

By Helen Roberts

Autumn is my favourite season. I love the colours, cooling temperatures and crispness of the air in the morning. One of the things I like most, however, is harvesting autumn fruit to use in cooking, baking and jams. So far, this autumn I have picked bucketfuls of blackberries, autumn raspberries, damsons, plums, apples, pears, quince, crabapples, rosehips and sloes.
It has been a wonderful harvest and my cupboards, freezer and larder are full of these delicious fruits as cakes, jams, jellies, butters or just shoved in the freezer to be used in the depths of winter. These are all fairly common and useful autumn fruits to most of us in the UK, but as I was poking about in my garden the other day I noticed quite an unusual fruit growing.
The fruit of chocolate vine (Akebia quinata).
Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
The fruit belongs to Akebia quinata,commonly known as chocolate vine – a vigorous climber that is growing really well in my garden. I have two plants growing up a north facing wall and a west-facing wall respectively and they are more or less planted in what I can only describe as gravel. They have always been strong growers despite neglect, but they have never produced fruit.
Last winter I decided to prune it back really hard with some hand shears as it was getting unruly. I thought I may have been too severe and they may not make it, but this summer they produced a mass of flowers and early autumn produced some lovely large weird sausage shaped fruit.
The plant is native to Japan, China and Korea. The sweet but insipid fruit pulp can be eaten, while the rind of the fruit is used like a vegetable in cooking – often stuffed with minced meat and deep fried. The leaves are used as a tea infusion.
Inspired by the weird and wonderful fruit in my garden, I ventured to the Botanic Gardens for a tour with botanical horticulturist, Andy Winfield. I told Andy I wanted to see some unusual fruit and seeds.

The Garden’s weird and wonderful fruit

The first plants on the tour, which were listed at the welcome hut of current things to see, were sunflowers. The variety, ‘Giant’, produced a rather wonderful forest that rose a couple of metres above us. My sons have grown this variety but the ones in the Garden are colossal by comparison.
Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana) fruit is wrapped in
a papery calyx. Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
In the same bed were two species of Physalis, a genus in the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Physalis philadelphica, or the tomatillo, bears small green-purple fruit and are a staple of Mexican cuisine in dishes such as salsa verde. I tried one and it tasted a bit like a very sweet tomato – I wasn’t enamoured, but I think they are better cooked. Physalis peruviana, the Cape gooseberry, on the other hand has a wonderful sweet pineapple-like flavour. The fruit is smaller than the tomatillo, bright orange in colour, with lots of little seeds inside. Just like the tomatillo, the fruit is enclosed in an inflated papery calyx.
Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa).
Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
Walking towards the hops in the western herb garden we walked past a fairly young Sweet Chestnut tree (Castanea sativa), which had dropped numerous spiky chestnuts, many of which had split to reveal the lovely glossy brown nuts inside. These nuts are roasted in many different countries and used to make stuffings for meat or vegetables. I have a bit of a sweet tooth so I am very fond of the use of these nuts in confections, puddings, desserts and cakes, my favourites being crème de marron and marrons glacés. Chestnuts used to be the food of the poor and were used by peasants as a staple instead of grains in parts of southwest France and parts of Italy. In France the chestnut tree is often referred to as l’arbre à pain, or the ‘bread tree’ as the chestnuts were ground into flour. The trees can grow to an impressive 20-35 metres in height with a 2 metre diameter trunk.

The cocoa tree’s tiny flowers are clustered
directly on the trunk. Photo credit: Helen Roberts.

My tour continued into the glasshouses to look at some economically important plants as well as others that are simply weird and wonderful looking. The cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, was our first stop – after all, who could pass on chocolate? This smallish tree with large glossy green leaves lives in the Garden’s tropical glasshouse and is a native of central and South America. At first glance it’s quite unassuming, but look a bit closer and you can see the distinctive shape of the cocoa pod. I was amazed by the size of the tiny cream flowers that grow in clusters directly on the trunk – a term known as cauliflory – and that these tiny flowers can produce such a large fruit. The pod contains 20-60 seeds within a white pulp, which are the main ingredient of chocolate.
The history of cacao dates back to the early formative period (1900-900 BC) when it was considered a very important part of Mesoamerican culture. The beans constituted both a ritual beverage and a major currency system in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilisations.
“We had a volunteer working at the gardens who used to work for J S Fry & Sons – a chocolate manufacturer in Bristol,” revealed Andy. “He said you can make about five bars of chocolate from one pod!”

The citrus known as Buddha’s hand (Citrus medica var. digitata).
Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
The tropical glasshouse also houses a weird looking citrus called ‘Buddha’s Hand’, Citrus medica var. digitata, which is cultivated in Japan and China. It looks like a small wizened citron with fingers. The fleshy peel can be steamed and candied fresh or it can be used for its highly aromatic and fragrant zest. The fruit has been an offering in Buddhist temples for a long time.
After the glasshouses, Andy took me to the pond where there is a rather ancient looking medlar (Mespilus germanica) tree, laden with fruit. I see this tree a lot in the various gardens I visit, but I have never used the fruit for anything.

Fruits of the medlar tree (mespilus germanica).
Photo credit: Helen Roberts.

“The fruit needs to be ‘bletted’,” said Andy, “which is when the fruit is browned by rot after a frost or naturally in storage over time. Then it can be eaten raw or used to make desserts, jelly, medlar cheese [akin to lemon curd] and wine.”
I recall my mother making medlar jelly, but I cannot remember ever tasting it. Perhaps I will try making something of the medlars after our first frost. My tour inspired thoughts of jam making sessions with some new and exotic fruits. There are lots of weird and wonderful fruits at the Botanic Garden right now – definitely worth a visit – who knows how it will inspire you?!

The strawberry timebomb: how basic plant biology can help you store your produce

Two days ago I purchased an alarmingly large number of strawberries. I couldn’t help myself. Grown in Cheddar, these sweet little ripe morsels are a welcome break from the onslaught of last year’s apples and a plethora of citrus. When you try to eat seasonally and with reduced transportation miles, you appreciate the appearance of new season fruit that much more.
Non-climacteric fruit, such as strawberries, do not continue to ripen once picked
Strawberries have to be picked at their peak of ripeness as
they don’t ripen any further once they’re separated from the
plant – known as non-climacteric fruit.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple

The moment I placed the box on my kitchen counter, however, I felt as though a timer began counting down on a bomb. But rather than finishing off with an explosion, it would be more of a moldy, decayed mess of fruit wasting away. In response, I did as my mother before me did, and I issued relentless alarm calls to my family, “Eat strawberries…strawberries would go well with that…why are you eating that pear? EAT strawberries!” Luckily the troops rallied and I’m happy to report that there was no waste.

This strawberry time bomb is more technically that stage between when a fruit has reached its peak ripeness and when it first starts to deteriorate. Strawberries, unlike some other fruits, do not continue to ripen when picked and so they have to be picked when they are perfectly ripe otherwise they will taste somewhat inferior. The rotting timer starts the minute the strawberry is picked and is running down from field (or poly tunnel) to consumer. So why is it that strawberries don’t ripen further after they’re picked, but fruits like tomatoes do?

Ethylene and rapid respiration: qualities of the climacteric fruit

The answer lies in some basic plant physiology. Some fruits produce a lot of ethylene and undergo rapid respiration during ripening, which means the fruits continue to ripen even once they are separated from the plant. These are known as climacteric fruits. As one would expect, non-climacteric fruits produce very little ethylene, do not undergo periods of rapid respiration and do not ripen any further once picked from the plant.
Ethylene plays a major role in the regulation of the ripening process and affects the rate at which the fruit ripens. Producers use this to their advantage. Bananas, for example, are picked hard and green and stored mature but unripe. When a retailer places an order, the bananas are placed in a room and ethylene is pumped in to ripen the fruit up for sale.
Ethylene is even used by industry as a de-greening agent for non-climacteric fruits, such as citrus. It is used to break down the green chlorophyll pigment in the peel of many citrus fruits, like orange and lemon, which essentially makes a somewhat unripe fruit appear ripe to the consumer.
The genetic regulation behind the climacteric characteristics of plants is very complex and not yet completely understood. For example, different melon varieties can be climacteric or non-climacteric. If a climacteric melon is crossed with a non-climacteric melon, the fruit is generally climacteric, suggesting it might be a genetically dominant character trait. Yet, other experiments that have crossed two non-climacteric melons have generated climacteric melons. This implies that the trait is more complex than a dominantly inherited trait.

Examples of climacteric versus non-climacteric fruits

There may be a few items on these lists that make you take a second look as we don’t commonly think of them as fruits, but rather as vegetables. However, aubergines, courgettes and cucumbers are indeed fruits.
Climacteric Fruits
Non-climacteric fruits
Bell peppers
Citrus fruits
Passion fruit
Most berries

How to store climacteric fruits and non-climacteric fruits

Tomatoes are a climacteric fruit - they continue to ripen after picking.
Different varieties of tomatoes, a climacteric fruit, on
display at a French market. Photo credit: Shelby Temple.

Knowing the difference between your climacteric and non-climacteric fruits can help you store them appropriately.

Climacteric fruits are best stored at room temperature. They are picked before they are ripe and refrigeration can slow the ripening process. Since these fruits will continue to ripen after picking, they generally have a shorter shelf-life, but refrigerating them once they have fully ripened could extend the shelf life somewhat. 
Non-climacteric fruits, on the other hand, are picked when fully ripe and are best stored in the refrigerator to slow their deterioration. They generally have a longer shelf-life as they don’t continue to ripen (though I don’t consider this to be true of berries).
Don’t store climacteric fruits with non-climacteric fruits as the ethylene produced by fruits such as bananas can speed up the rotting process of an already ripe fruit. However, this natural ethylene production can also work to your advantage. Avocados, for example, are often sold hard as rocks and if you wish to speed up the ripening process, you can store them with bananas in a paper bag on the counter.

The climacteric character of fruit is an active area of research due to the direct applications for the way we pick, transport and store our food. As much as I am an advocate for scientific solutions, I hope overindulging on the sweet delicious fruit of local strawberries during this precious time of year is never resolved – it is simply a matter of tradition.

An apple a day

by Helen Roberts

Name three things Somerset is famous for and most people will say cider, Cheddar cheese and the Glastonbury Festival. While I could certainly talk at length about cider and its versatility (particularly having enjoyed a lovely mug of mulled cider recently at bonfire night), it is where cider begins – the humble apple – that is the subject of today’s post. I live near Wells, in the heart of Somerset, and the trees in the apple orchards are positively dripping with fruit at the moment, a welcome sight for orchard growers who had a dismal season in 2012. It was National Apple Day on the 21st of October, and many places around the UK have been hosting events to celebrate England’s national fruit. Humans and the common apple have a long history together in terms of its cultivation and it is a familiar fruit throughout the world. Essentially, the richness of this sweet little fruit lies in its ordinariness.

A brief history of the apple

The (not so) humble apple.
The domestic apple (Malus domestica) is derived from both Malus sieversii (from Central Asia) and the crab apple (Malus sylvestris). The domestic apple is thought to be derived from Almaten in eastern Kazakhstan and the northern slopes of the Tien Shan Mountains. Apple taxonomy is highly complicated, and I shall save you the details, but the Malus genus is included in the Rosaceae family and has approximately 55 species, which are divided into intraspecific groups or cultivars.
Evidence of apple collecting has been found in Neolithic (11,200 years ago) and Bronze Age (around 4,500 years ago) sites throughout Europe and there is evidence for its cultivation as early as 1000 BC in Israel. Carbonized fruits dating from 6500 BC have been found at Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia and remains of both sour crab apples and a larger form, which may have been cultivated, have been found at lake dwellings of prehistoric origin in Switzerland.
It is thought that apple seeds were probably transported along the greatsilk trade routes from Central China to the Danube by travellers, either in saddlebags or in horses’ guts as early as Neolithic and Bronze Age times. The routes passed through Almaten and the northern slopes of the Tien Shan Mountains.
Improved forms of apples are thought to have developed in the FertileCrescent, which covers Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Apple trees reached Palestine in about 2000 BC and from there, were taken to Egypt.
Apples were important in Ancient Greece and various writings give evidence of the propagation of apple trees. Homer in the Odyssey, written between 900 and 800 BC, describes a large orchard of both apples and pears. It is the Romans that are credited with developing apple cultivation and storage. They recognized the importance and profitability of orchards and brought apples, and hence orchards, to Western Europe. Many Roman writers mentioned various cultivars of apples in their writings.
During medieval and pre-industrial times monasteries became major centres for apple production, particularly for cider production. King Henry VIII imported many different cultivars during his reign from 1509 to 1547, including pippins from France. In the mid 16th century, Dutch refugees escaping from religious persecution moved to Kent and Surrey to set up market gardens to supply London, and planted orchards for this purpose. During the 16th century and early 17th century grafting was further developed in Europe with specific rootstocks being imported from France and then propagated in English nurseries. European settlers, introduced apple culture to North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The first documented apple orchard in the USA was planted near Boston in 1625.

Cider making

The word cider is derived from the latin word sicera which means ‘strong drink’. The first recording of cider making is from Norfolk in 1205, but it was common in many different areas of England, particularly the western counties of Somerset, Devon, Worcester and Hereford. Apples suitable for cider have a sweet juice and an acid pulp. The names given to cider apple varieties are lovely in themselves, varieties known as “bitter sweets” and “bitter sharps”, such as  Slack-me-Girdle, Foxwhelp, Lambrook pippin, Chisel Jersey, Porter’s Perfection and Royal Somerset.
Cider making takes part in late Autumn and the traditional method was to crush the apples between heavy stone wheels driven by horses. In the West Country the resulting pulp was then spread onto straw or wooden racks and cloths and a large sandwich or ‘cheese’ was made by laying one rack on top of the other. Set into a wooden press, it was squeezed repeatedly and the juice collected. I remember watching this method of cider production at a local farm as a child in Central Somerset. Today cider has made a come back and there are many smaller scale producers cropping up in areas of the West Country.
Bristol University has a long history of research into cider production at Long Ashton. The research station was originally set up to facilitate the development and improvement of West Country cider and formed the National Institute of Fruit and Cider (NIFC). Scientists identified the best apple varieties, growing conditions, and production methods for growers and cider-makers; many cultivars, such as Ashton Brown Jersey, orginate from Long Ashton.   

Weird and wonderful facts

Apples are very much entwined in our culture and history. Many popular apple-based phrases, such as “the apple of my eye”, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, “rotten apple”, “rotten to the core” and “upset the apple cart”, are embedded within our culture. Other words also have apples at their core (groan);  costermonger – a street seller of fruit – comes from the Costard apple. “Costard” means ribbed and gave rise to “coster”, while “monger” means seller.
Erika Janik, author of Apple: AGlobal History, said the apple is “Enmeshed in the folklore and history of nations around the globe, apples have been associated with love, beauty, luck, health, comfort, pleasure, wisdom, temptation, sensuality and fertility – all this in addition to good eating and drinking.”

Apples at the Botanic Garden

If you managed to get to the Bee and PollinationFestival at the Botanic Garden, you will have seen a small cider press in action. You may have also seen a potted orchard on display near the pond, featuring a number of varieties of apple, including Bramley, Golden Delicious, Lord Derby, Ashmead’s Kernel, Discovery, James Grieve, Spartan, Fiesta and Greensleeves. It was yet another example of how pollinators are critical to our food security – pollination of our orchards and the production of the (not so) humble apple.