Photography by Daniel Vaughan
Tiny Apples with a Wild Attitude
A unique new product available at farmers markets and specialty stores throughout the County and Quinte region is gathering momentum and writing exciting new chapters on the area’s historic apple industry. While Almarium Sours’ Pomarium Renaissance crabapple products are a very welcome new addition to the taste buds, its very essence stems from ancient forests, trade routes, and one couple’s mission over almost three decades of dedication to the small wild apple.
In Kazakhstan, a forest grows, at one time tens of thousands of acres of wild fruit trees, even now, thousands of acres remain, although threatened and reduced by encroaching development. Growing for centuries, millennia, so remote and inaccessible in its mountainside it was not discovered by a westerner until the 1830s. Wild fruit growing, surviving, evolving.
From this forest near the Chinese border, closer still to ancient trade routes, the fruits travelled. There is a theory birds dropped the original seeds, and the orchards grew from there. The Tien Shan brown bear developed a taste for the apples, and inadvertently became the orchard-keepers. The bears clamoured through the trees, breaking branches on the way (an early form of pruning) finding what they like best. Bears doing what bears do in the woods, the seeds found themselves back in the rich forests, delivered with fertilizer. It was a very efficient consumer to compost to cultivation situation.
As trade routes developed, horses and other pack animals and their human guides ate the fruit and spread the seeds. Eventually, the seeds arrived in what is now Europe, and spread to the New World. The DNA of ubiquitous commercially available apples comes from these orchards, tracing back to the Malus sieversii, still thriving in the Kazakh forests in the foothills of remote mountains.
So entrenched are apples in the Kazakh culture, the former capital of Kazakhstan is Almaty. The city of apples.
The language of apples fascinates, and admittedly at times frustrates Anne Varangu, who with her husband Paul Kurelek has spent more than three decades experimenting with their crabapples.
Anne is comfortable parsing words in and out of context, and deconstructing languages and ideas. Anne’s roots are in Estonia, and her surname is relatively new. When Estonia acquired independence for the first time, there was a solid movement to repatriate names to Estonian. Her grandfather switched from a common Scandinavian name to Varangu, paying extra to limit its use – to keep it unique to his family.
“We don’t know where it came from,” laughed Anne. “We’re sure it had meaning to him, but that secret is his. He was a big celebrator of independence.” Varangu is a geological formation, Vikings are known as Varangians and of course Trekkies will bond with the name, and there’s a tree in India called a varangu. “The etymologies are diverse,” Anne continued.
The Varangu family from Estonia, and the Kurelek family from Bukovina (now divided between Ukraine and Romania) followed much the same path as the apple seeds, starting in the far reaches of Europe, finding their way to North America.
Anne’s parents were refugees, fleeing Estonia as Germany and the Soviet Union fought over the small northern European country during the Second World War. As bombing advanced behind them, they left by boat, heading for Sweden, where they lived for seven years before emigrating to Canada around 1950. “Niagara Falls was a dream destination for Europeans and my parents wanted to put distance between them and Europe.”
Anne’s father worked as a research chemist and her mother broke cultural taboos by working outside the home as a secretary. They adjusted quickly. “Estonia had an advanced education system and my parents were also fluent in Swedish, German, and English. My father spoke English with a pronounced British accent because that’s how he learned.”
Niagara Falls was home for Anne, and she attended Brock University so she could continue living with her parents. Anne and her parents spoke only Estonian at home. “Estonian is who my parents were,” she explains. “They weren’t embarrassed by their country – they left because others took it over and they didn’t know how long the Cold War would last. I still speak with my Mom in Estonian. It wouldn’t feel natural to speak anything else.”
Anne studied at Brock, earning an undergraduate and master’s degree in politics, followed by another master’s degree in philosophy. She then earned a PhD in planning at the University of Waterloo. “It was logical to go into planning – the merger of politics and philosophy.” Her dissertation was on values.
During her doctoral studies, she was invited to speak at a NATO conference in Kraków and took the long way via Estonia. “Growing up, Estonia was a fairy tale language. It wasn’t something we could use in business or outside the house but being there in Estonia make me realize it was a functional language. It also put it in context. Although I was fluent in the language, all my experience and perspectives were from a totally different framework.”
Doctorate in hand, Anne realized she loved teaching but couldn’t bear to be inside all day. “Farming isn’t a career; it’s a life.” By this time, Anne and Paul were settled on their farm in Stoney Creek, and their business – Paul Kurelek Terrascapes – was thriving. Anne studied at Waterloo during the day and joined Paul at work after her return commute. In addition to the design and installation work, Paul and Anne also grew nursery stock for the landscape industry. Growing ornamental and fruit trees was in Paul’s blood. For years, he had collected crabapples on his many trips to visit relatives on the Prairies. “He spent a lot of time in the west and crabapples are big there. Selected varieties thrive in the cold of the Prairies,” shared Anne. “He’d bring the crabs home and plant them, learning what he loved about some, what he didn’t like about others.”
As a landscaper, Paul understood the aesthetic value of ornamental crabapple. Mostly, he loved the taste of the wild crabapples. The smaller the apple, the higher the ratio of peel-to-flesh, and the nutrients are in the peel. The phytochemicals give the flavour, so the smaller the mature fruit, the more flavour and nutrition.
As Paul collected more crabapples, he brought them home to the orchard and planted the seeds. Through trial and error and patience, they selected flavour components and found the small-fruited, wild-flavoured seedlings were an excellent match. For the first time, crabapple seedlings were selected for their fruit rather than ornamental value.
It was the way of the North American settlers, who didn’t like the continent’s one native apple Malus coronaria, so they imported more from Europe, finding a perfect blend. At that time, apples were primarily grown for cider. Eventually they crossed varieties and came up with a domestic eating apple.
Just as the Kazakh forests full of wild fruit and the apple orchards established by settlers around the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley are sources of origin, Anne and Paul’s test orchards fit that category as well.
They continue to experiment and are delighted with the results. “We learned years ago no two trees grown from seed are alike. We’re in the business of growing snowflakes,” laughed Anne. “Millions and millions of snowflakes in our orchards.”
They remain intrigued with terminology. “A crabapple is defined as any apple less than two inches in diameter. The definition has nothing to do with taste or acidity, just size.” Fluent in several languages, Anne finds the name a challenge, too. “Crabapple is an English term and difficult to translate,” explained Anne. “Internationally they are forest apples or wild apples, just as they are in the wild forests of Kazakhstan. We think of large mono-culture orchards but there’s a sharp divide between what we know as apples and their origin.”
Perfectionists, Paul and Anne are approaching this passion in an entirely different way, doing what the settlers did with small test orchards, going for tiny apples with lots of flavour, not growing apples for the fresh market or crabapple trees for ornamental value. “No one planted the first fruit trees in Kazakhstan and we’re mimicking that, letting our seedlings grow wild and pollinate naturally. This is biodiversity at its best and easiest. They’re wild. That’s something to celebrate. We look at our experimental orchard and see such diversity. Some trees are columnar, some have a fern leaf, and the are all different.”
Again, the discussion turns to terminology.
“We grow our fruit in an orchard, so how can we call our fruit wild? There isn’t much of a precedent to guide how we should describe the wild features of our fruit. It is naturally wild-flavoured. It is wild-sourced. Can something that is grown deliberately, cultivated, still be described as wild?”
Michael Pollan thinks so. He wrote in his New York Times 1998 essay, Breaking Ground: The Call of the Wild Apple, “Luckily for us, wildness can be cultivated, can thrive even in the straight lines and right angles of an apple orchard.”
Anne concurs. “We plant from seed, we wait several years until the trees are productive, study the characteristics, and then graft what we like. Instead of searching out fruit with a tamer flavour or breeding new varieties to eliminate the wild flavour, we continue to search for the best wild flavours that can be blended together into a very complex taste experience.”
The orchards now are populated with thousands of trees representing several hundred varieties. It is Anne and Paul’s very own mini source of origin. Some trees are very young, and many finally produced a harvest. After three years on their Grafton-area property, they made their first wild-sourced crabapple juice in 2018, and it was met with rave reviews.
Anne and Paul breathed a sigh of relief. “We needed to know if others would see it as special and different.” The market responded enthusiastically. There is nothing else like it. Pomarium Renaissance intrigued people in taste tests. “They had a hard time identifying it because the flavour prolife is unique; the most common guess was strawberry. It’s not the colour of apple juice, it’s a totally different experience.”
Anne started with the Codrington Farmers’ Market, then attended the Wellington Farmers’ Market on Canada Day. “That blew us away,” recalled Anne. “It was the first time we had jelly for sale. A couple returning home to France fell in love with the juice and wanted to take some home, but they were concerned about the liquid. They took the jelly instead and loved it.”
A Turkish couple had an orchard wanted Anne and Paul to help them rejuvenate it with their trees. Iconic Canadian celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy mixed Pomarium Renaissance with soda water and sold it with his fries.
“The input and enthusiasm were so important to us. The couples from Turkey and France thought we were emblematic of Canadian produce. They didn’t know we were just trying to see if people liked it. We’d been building to this point for 30 years and it’s time to share and recoup some of that effort.”
People love it. “We learned people will pay wine-bottle prices for wine-bottle sizes. There is a hole in the market for a sophisticated non-alcoholic drink,” explained Anne. It’s small-batch, incredibly hands-on, artisan, local, wild-sourced, and unique. Most of all, it is delicious.
Now in the second year of production, Anne and Paul are developing new products with their Pomarium Renaissance. There is jelly, and Anne is taking that a step further, making a natural candy, an upscale take on pâte de fruit, plain, sugared, or chocolate covered. They are working on a cider vinegar, aiming for a thicker consistency similar to an aged Balsamic. They are in discussions with a local distiller, a brewer, and most recently were approached by a cidery owner who is stuck on the idea of making cider from wild-sourced crabapples.
Demand is increasing, which is both heartening and hard work. The trees are grafted and planted by hand; the fruit is hand-picked. “We harvest when the crabs are at their peak,” explained Anne. “Timing of picking is critical in order to get maximum flavour. Peak flavour does not always coincide with how easily the fruit can be shaken from the tree.” Family is often recruited to help.
The apples go from tree to deep freeze immediately, and that stops all activity. The fruit is cold pressed, resulting in a very clear unfiltered nectar. Nothing is added. Nothing is taken away. It is still slush before it goes into the vat. The only time it is heated is very briefly when it is pasteurized and bottled.
Anne is grateful for the help she receives from the Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre in nearby Colborne. Only minutes from the orchard, Anne and Paul rely on the facility staff’s expertise. “Neil Horner is a world-class food processing specialist. We bought here in part because of its proximity. We’re so fortunate to have it so close; people drive for hours. It’s a big deal for us because when we process there, we know the quality control is excellent. It opens new markets.”
Wholesaling is another growth point for the company. Pomarium Renaissance is available at the Sunflower Health Shop in Brighton, The Natural in Warkworth, and The Agrarian Market in Picton. A Toronto retail location is pending.
Anne and Paul value the interaction and feedback on a personal level. This season, they attend four farmers markets each week. Anne starts the week at Codrington on Sundays, Port Hope on Wednesdays, and Wellington on Saturdays. This year, they were offered a coveted spot at the Brick Works Saturday Market, which Paul attends.
Chatting with market visitors, the couple takes time to explain their journey, the apples, the health benefits of peel-to-flesh ratio, the influence of phytonutrients on the flavour, and offer free samples. Anne will often find a way to mix her love of teaching with her life of farming, heading back into the language discussion.
The product name was carefully chosen. Pomarium is old Latin for orchard. At one time, most fruits were called apples, just as all grains were called corn. In Kazakhstan, alma means apple; in romance languages it means spirit or soul. The Apple computer store in Budapest is called Almarium-Pro.
Then there is Almaty, the City of Apples, near the wild orchards of Kazakhstan. The original source of origin, the ancestor of the tiny wild apples growing in a Grafton orchard, and lovingly crafted into this elegant beverage.
Terviseks, Anne and Paul.