Ottawans have a proud tradition of supporting local farmers and buying fresh produce in season, as a visit to any of our many farmers' markets will prove. But unless you're a staunch adherent to the Ď100 mile diet' - which takes a lot of planning and preserving - you likely also buy fruits and vegetables that have been shipped from other places, especially in the winter months when the local or regional supply has been consumed. Increasingly, a lot of what we see in our supermarkets, especially when it comes to organics, is coming from Washington State, home to one of the continent's biggest fruit farming industries.
In late September, I was one of six Canadian food writers brought to Washington to learn more about the organic fruit industry. Why Washington? Canada, particularly the eastern part of our country, is the single biggest export market for Washington fruit. Check the labels in your local supermarket! It's worth noting that the US is also Canada's biggest export market for apples, with about 10% of our annual crop heading south of the border.
While visiting Wenatchee's Stemilt Growers, one of the state's largest fruit producers, I learned that the US is also the leading organic apple producer in the world. In Washington State, the dry climate and ideal temperatures mitigate the disease and pest problems that can impact fruit, reducing the need for sprays or other methods to control insects and pests. While some debate the merits of conventional versus organic produce, it is true that purchasing organic fruit reduces one's exposures to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. So supporting organic farmers also means healthier soil and groundwater. In addition, organic farmers strive to preserve biodiversity, something of increasing importance due to concerns about genetically modified foods. It's important to note that the price difference between conventional and organic produce has been steadily decreasing, as organic farmers succeed at increasing the yields on their farms.
On this trip, I also picked up some interesting, fruit-specific information, some of which I gathered as a result of questions sent to me via email, Facebook and Twitter. One of the most popular queries concerned advances in storage techniques. We can now enjoy top-quality apples almost year round now, thanks to the preferred method of holding them in controlled atmosphere storage rooms. This keeps them at an optimal temperature until they are carefully sorted, graded and packaged immediately prior to shipping. Watch for more information appearing soon via additional blog posts about pears and preserving fruit!
There are a lot more options now than a few decades ago in the apple department. Here are some of today's favourite apple varieties and their uses:
* Red Delicious - known for its Ďbumps' on the bottom, it's a perpetually popular snacking apple, especially in the US where they typically prefer their apples sweeter than we do in Canada (hence the popularity of Macintosh apples here, but not in western US).
* Golden Delicious - considered an all-purpose variety. Mellow and sweet, it's great for eating out of hand, baking and especially in salads because once cut, its flesh stays whiter longer than other varieties.
* Gala - one of the newest darlings of the apple industry, Galas are crisp, aromatic and sweet. Spot them thanks to their pinkish-orange stripes over a yellow background. Popular for both salads and snacking.
* Granny Smith - these bright green beauties are extremely tart, crisp and versatile; many pie bakers like to use them; they are also excellent for salads and snacking.
* Note that the above four varieties represent about 90% of all the apples imported by Canada.
Fuji - this large, very flavourful apple was introduced to North America from Japan in the 1980s. It's a firm, super-sweet, crisp eating apple that holds its texture beautifully when baked.
Honeycrisp - this apple has a bright red and pale green skin, with cream-coloured, crisp, juicy flesh that is sweet with a hint of tartness. Great for salads, baking and snacking.
Cripps Pink (also known as Pink Lady) - snackers and bakers alike adore this apple for its firm, crisp flesh and tangy-tart, sweet flavour.
Braeburn - this very firm apple has a rich, sweet-tart, almost spicy flavour. Colours range from orange to red over a yellow background. Great for eating as-is or in baking.