So much more than just crisp and fresh

They taste different, they have different names, and yet very few people realise that not all of them make a good apple strudel.

  • October 2016

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Article Article Galleries Galleries Facts Facts

So much more than just crisp and fresh

They taste different, they have different names, and yet very few people realise that not all of them make a good apple strudel.

Whether green or red, small or large – people have found apples to be irresistible since the time of Adam. Christine Schönweger and Magdalena Thuile, two of South Tyrol’s many female apple farmers, are also under their spell. On separate visits to their respective farms, I notice that their operations could not be more different. But both know that there is much more to this unassuming fruit than meets the eye.

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The past meets the present

The sound of crunching pebbles begins right after the entrance. Perfectly trimmed hedges and a fountain reflect the inner peace of this place. The Gaudenzhof farm in Parcines/Partschins is Christine Schönweger’s paradise. It’s the realm of a woman who studied fashion in Milan, yet was brought here by fate.

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It all began 23 years ago. She welcomes me with a friendly smile. Her manner is content and natural. “I love contact with nature,” she says as I notice her special shoes, which remind me of gloves for feet. The farmhouse itself radiates an ancient charm. Built in 1348, it was first intended as a lookout tower. Vines surround the building but where are all the apples?

Apple growing in South Tyrol

There are over 7,000 apple farmers in South Tyrol, whose farms have an average surface area of 2.5 hectares. The changeable Mediterranean climate of South Tyrol, with rainy springs and sunny summer and autumn seasons couple with large temperature differences between day and night, is ideal for growing a wide range of delicious varieties.

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The right place for every apple

The apple orchard is located a few minutes from the Gaudenzerhof. Tree after tree is lined up, always the same distance apart, covering the entire field. “We grow four different varieties on these 2.5 hectares: Gala, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Fuji,” Christine tells me. She is one of the 96% of South Tyrolean apple farmers who use integrated farming methods. This means that the trees are regularly checked for disease and plant protection agents are only used when the damage threshold is exceeded. Even then, only a few substances are permitted.

Organic apples

Four percent of the apples produced in South Tyrol are organically grown. While this may not sound like much, it is nonetheless significant. The area accounts for 40%, making it Europe’s largest organic apple supplier. Organic apples were first cultivated in the 1980s.

I am surprised that Christine is carrying a so-called “Klaubbox,” a picking basket. The harvest does not officially begin until tomorrow. Each apple variety is picked in turn, from Gala to Fuji, from the middle of August until mid-October. Her son Felix also helps out.

“If we like, we can pick some apples today,” she says, the basket firmly under her arm. No sooner the word than the deed. The apples look perfect to me and they are tended carefully throughout the year. During cold snaps in spring, Christine, a part-time secretary, waters the trees to produce “freezing warmth” as a protection for the blossoms. It usually works, but not always. She shows me a mottled apple. “The night of 27 April caused us a lot of frost damage. The cold came up from the ground and affected the lower rows of trees,” she explains. The marked apples nevertheless taste good. “But the market only wants perfect ones. So we use them for something else.” For exactly what, she will not yet say.

100 grams of apple contain:

kcal

53

protein

0.3 g

carbohydrate

11.4 g

of which fructose

5.7 g

fat

0.6 g

fibre

2 g

sodium

3 mg

vitamin C

12 mg

Apples are made up of 85% water and 8% fructose. They contain hardly any fat, but have numerous valuable ingredients such as vitamins, minerals and secondary plant compounds. With an average of 12 mg per 100 grams, the vitamin C content provides 15% of the daily requirement. 

Working without a break

On the following day, when I go looking for the Sandwiesen farm in Gargazzone/Gargazon, I see nothing but apple trees far and wide. But then, hidden among them, I see the farm. To my surprise, I find myself standing in front of an ultramodern house. A curved green roof soars from the ground to the gable. It’s the first “Climate House Gold” farm. With a smile, Magdalena Thuile opens the gate for me.

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Magdalena inherited the property from her parents. She gave up her normal job, tempted by the benefits of setting her own schedule and spending time outdoors. The farm was built in 2010 with two holiday apartments next door, just as Magdalena, her husband and two daughters wished. Since then she has dedicated herself completely to the 9,000 apple trees that surround the house, a total of three hectares.

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We walk through the rows of apple trees. Only with difficulty do I manage to stop myself from reaching out to pick and bite into an apple. They all look so perfect. The expert’s eyes see things differently, however. Magdalena picks a striped apple and is about to throw it on the ground, when I stop her politely. “May I try it?,” I ask, stretching out my hand. “You see the rows over there?” she asks and points to some small apple trees. “They had to be pulled out. People nowadays want dark red apples, not yellow-and-red striped ones.” Even apples are not immune to fashion – a misfortune for the many small farms of South Tyrol.

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From the crate to the co-operative

When I bite into the apple, the taste on my palate is a mixture of the fruity and the slightly sour. This apple would not be good enough for the co-operative to sell, even if it tastes fine. It will probably be used in the production of jam, apple juice or vinegar.

"It’s not important to continue to grow and sell ever more apples. Passion is also part of a family business like ours.” Magdalena Thuile 

The harvest of a particular variety lasts two weeks. The co-operative sets the exact start date. Once they arrive there, the apples are given a water bath and a thorough video control. They are sorted according to size, colour, level of damage, and peel quality. All of these factors determine the price paid to the farmers.

The European Union quality mark

Thirteen of the 18+ apple varieties grown in South Tyrol carry the European Union quality mark. There is something for every taste: From the more acidic Granny Smith, Idared, Topaz and Morgenduft varieties to the aromatic Gala, Jonagold, Elstar and Pinova. Braeburn, Fuji and Winesap are the juiciest, whilst Golden and Red Delicious are the sweetest. 

Curious uses

From both of these farmer’s wives, I learn that apples have many uses, including those apples that do not receive a quality mark. I usually eat them raw, though from time to time I bake a strudel. “Golden Delicious are the best for apple strudel,” says Magdalena, even if Granny Smith is the officially approved variety. Our trip between the apple trees is over and she invites me to enjoy a glass of “garage champagne” with her. They no longer have a traditional wine cellar. Instead, the sparkling wine they make from apples is stored in their deep garage.

The bubbles press on the surface of the glass and a sweetish smell fills my nose. Magdalena’s husband Peter worked for 30 years as a winemaker: It is his great passion. 

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Christine Schönweger too finds a use for the apples that are not categorised as “perfect.” She has been making schnapps as a side business for the last ten years or so. Sales at the farm have evened out, even if no one absolutely needs schnapps. People come to hear about its history, Christine recounts. One thing I have learned, however, is that apples not only taste good, they are also the fruit of work and passion.

Text: Katja Schroffenegger
Translation: Gareth Norbury
Photos: Ivo Corrà