Well, officially, there's a few weeks left of summer. But to our eyes watching the first of the maples turn color, to our noses as the distinctly crisp smells of cooler temperatures mix with smoke from backyard campfires and woodstoves, and to our ears hearing the honking of Canada geese and the last of the loons, autumn has begun in the Northwoods.
Add a fourth sense to those indicators of fall: taste.
The taste of apples crisp and tart fresh off the tree, or melt-in-your-mouth tender and cinnamon-laced in a pie, apple sauce or apple butter.
And the taste of cabbage, encasing savory sarmas, zingy and bright as sauerkraut, crisp and refreshing in slaws and salads.
Both grow wonderfully in our Northern climate, both have been historic staples of many of our immigrant ancestors, and both are packed with vitamins and antioxidants.
When the Mayflower landed, the first British governor of Massachusetts planted apple trees in an orchard that stretched to the foot of the Boston lighthouse.
Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, modern-day New York City, grew apples in an orchard that later became the notorious Bowery neighborhood. He claimed that he grafted the first truly American apple tree here in 1647. That historic tree, still bearing fruit, was knocked down by a derailed train car in 1866.
Apples have been growing in Minnesota in earnest since the 1870's, with a large amount of credit due to Peter Gideon, who tested thousands of seedlings on his property near Excelsior. Attempting to prove Horace Greely wrong (he warned an audience in 1860 not to go to Minnesota as it was impossible to grow apples), Gideon created the great grandma of all Minnesota commercial apples, the Wealthy, in 1868. Named after his wife, the Wealthy has influenced directly or indirectly apples like Haralson, State Fair, HoneyCrisp, and the U of M's latest sensation SweeTango.
Local growers Ralph and Amy Fideldy have several of these varieties in their Cohasset orchard. Even as a kid, Ralph wanted to grow apples, but his Mom, much like Greely, didn't think you could successfully grow an orchard on their Blackberry farm.
The Fideldys have had to replace many a tree, and have learned much through the process of trial and error. Starting out with just a half-dozen Mantet apple trees in 1987, they have about 11 varieties in their orchard of more than 300 trees, along with a maple syrup operation. They have some great tips for folks interested in growing their own trees.
First off, choose hardy varieties. Both prefer bare-root seedlings too.
"It's easier to expose all the roots to the new soil with bare-root trees," explains Amy, "otherwise, you really have to shake every last bit of dirt off the potted seedlings."
They plant trees as soon as the ground can be worked.
"Muck ‘em in!" says Amy. "Dig your hole big enough for the roots, and make a mud slurry to put the roots in. You want to eliminate any air pockets that can prematurely freeze in cold weather."
Both also caution about fertilizing the first year.
"Let them acclimate," warns Ralph. "You don't want them to grow too fast or they won't be dense enough to take the winter cold... and don't fertilize older trees after July 1st for the same reason; let them harden off."
The couple places flexible sewer pipe cut down the side to protect trees from winter rodents like rabbits and voles.
"The tight-fitting tree guards from nursery shops create a perfect environment for mold and fungus," says Ralph. "The [six-inch] sewer pipes allow for airflow."
But the most important tip might be a bit surprising to some readers.
"As soon as all the leaves have fallen, take white latex paint, thin it down, and spray the tree from top to bottom," Amy strongly urges. "When we get those thaws and warm-ups in February and March, the sap will start to rise up into the tree, but it won't have time to get back down, causing cracking and death. The white paint reflects the sun and keeps the sap from rising to far up. It‘s our No. 1 recommendation."
Asked their favorite part of raising apples, they both look at each other before replying, "Walking in the orchard."
"It's just beautiful," says Amy. "We get to see the fruits of our labor." Quite literally!
One of apples most important uses in the early days was not as a food, but as a beverage: cider. And the Fideldys have a group, the Boreal Home Brewers, who are making hard cider with their apples - a great way to use less-than-perfect fruits. So important to homesteading families was cider that is was the only alcoholic beverage not mentioned or vilified by the Temperance League - the founders of prohibition.
Cider's important role in the lives of immigrant settlers gave rise to Johnny Appleseed, a flesh-and-blood preacher and nurseryman, not just a legend.
John Chapman would collect the leftover pulp and seeds at cider mills in order to start seedlings, which he would then sell to settlers from his canoe as he plied the wilderness around the rivers of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. He would also plant these seedlings in fenced nurseries on farmers' land and take a share of the profits when they were sold or bartered for.
Keep in mind that no apple seed grows true to its parent - every apple you eat is a clone! A branch or piece of a chosen variety is grafted onto a hardy rootstock, often crabapple, in order to grow your favorite HoneyCrisp, McIntosh, or Braeburn. There are estimated to be more than 7,500 different horticultural varieties in the world
Johnny's wild seedlings produced apples almost impossible to eat, but they were just fine for cider. And cider's processing would take water with possible bacteria and pathogens and brew it into something sterile and safe. No wonder the prohibitionists looked the other way!
Speaking of alcohol, Greeks and Romans believed that if you ate cabbage during a banquet, it would keep you from getting drunk! And it was an old French custom to bring newly married couples cabbage soup first thing in the morning after their bridal night for fertility. While these seem like silly superstitions, cabbage does have some powerful properties.
During Captain Cook's first expedition in 1769 a storm injured almost 40 members of his crew. The ship's doctor saved the victims from gangrene by applying compresses made of cabbage leaves to their wounds.
Sauerkraut has its roots in the acid soups made from the young shoots, buds, and leaves of birch trees eaten by Nordic peoples during Neolithic times. Rich in phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins preserved by fermentation, sauerkraut was regarded by Captain Cook as one of the secrets of his success, and it was always included as one of his provisions. Like beer and bread, the lactic fermentation that happens while making sauerkraut destroys microbes. While it has been for years associated with breaking wind, the real cause is usually the fatty meats or the beer consumed alongside the sauerkraut.
Cabbage is the one of the oldest vegetables related to modern-day varieties that were gathered by plant-hunters before agriculture. Wild cabbage was a small plant with firm, fleshy leaves. It grew in all European coastal areas, absorbing essential mineral salts, and can still be found along the English Channel. It came to North America via Jacques Cartier, who planted it in Canada on his third voyage in 1541. Broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, rutabagas, and even canola make up the over 400 variants in the Brassica family of cabbages.
Come down to the Farmers Market and savor the taste of fall with the rich history and bold flavors of local fresh apples and cabbage. And don't forget Customer Appreciation Day on Saturday, Sept. 17, with gift basket giveaways, a ‘Largest Zucchini Contest" and fresh local food prepared by Brewed Awakenings Coffeehouse, Wylde Thyme Too Catering and others. See you there!
These two recipes combine the very best of the flavors and textures of apples and cabbage:
2 parts crisp, tart apples
1 part firm, white cheese like Manchego, Gouda, aged Swiss or white cheddar
Chopped fresh chives
Extra-virgin olive oil.
1. Chop or use a ‘mandoline' food chopper to julienne apples and cheese into thin matchsticks.
2. Immediately toss apples with lemon juice to keep them from browning. Add a small amount of olive oil and chives and serve. Add salt and pepper to taste. Absolutely wonderful.
Stuffed cabbage bake
1 head of Savoy (green crinkly-leaf) cabbage
Sliced swiss cheese
Sliced tart apples
1. Pre-heat oven to 350.
2. Peel off individual leaves of the cabbage and blanch in boiling water for 1 minute. Cut off fibrous stems from the whole leaves.
3. In a buttered casserole dish, arrange leaves of cabbage as you would lasagna noodles: a layer of leaves, topped by a layer of cheese. Top with another layer of cabbage and then apples. Cabbage and then ham are next. Make as many alternating layers as you wish or have ingredients for - it will cook down.
4. Cover with foil and bake for one hour. Remove foil and bake for 10 minutes more to brown top.
5. Let cool for 20-30 minutes. Cut like lasagna and top with a béchamel or white gravy flavored with whole grain mustard. One of the most delicious fall dishes you will ever eat!