When you walk through a supermarket produce section or farmers' market, it may seem like there is a wide variety of fruit available, but there are actually thousands of varieties of tree fruit that aren't commercially grown. The Chicago Rarities Orchard Project is working to bring some of those varieties back to the spotlight. More on that below, plus a family recipe for quince paste!
Founded in 2008, the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP) is a non-profit working to establish community rare-fruit orchards in Chicago. The group's goal is to plant orchards in reclaimed spaces and preserve "a few of the thousands of varieties of tree fruit that aren't commonly commercially grown, while providing open space and educational opportunities to Chicagoans."
We talked to CROP's co-founder Dave Snyder about how the group got its start and what it hopes to accomplish in Chicago
When and how did CROP get started?
CROP got started in 2008 when myself and my friend Carl Baratta were riding a bus through Chicago, dreaming up projects for all the empty lots we saw along the way. I'd been thinking about ideas for new gardening projects (I've worked at Ginkgo Organic Gardens for five years) and somehow this one stuck. Since then, we've put together a group of dedicated volunteers, got our 501c3, raised a modest budget, and planted 60 small trees.
Do you have a permanent space at this point? Where are you in that process?
We do not have a permanent site. We've been working with the good people over at Neighborspace who have been instrumental in helping us look for land, but this is a long process. Our project is unlike other community gardens in the city and so our needs are a little different. For the last couple months, we've been in discussion with the Department of Zoning and Land Use about a lot in the Logan Square neighborhood, which has gone quite well. Still, we're many months away from having our trees in a permanent location. We've been camping trees in friends' yards and at the Chicago Honey Co-op in the meantime.
Is there a particular fruit or event that inspired you to start the project?
I'd read an article in the New York Times by Harold McGee about the apple collection at the USDA's Plant Genetic Resource Unit in New York. I, like most American consumers, had no idea about the vast diversity of apples (the USDA's collection is about 2,500 varieties) and was fascinated by McGee's descriptions. Apples, it turns out, represent a unique problem in crop preservation and are a priority of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. All that said, we want our orchard to represent a variety of species and types of fruits, including brambles and bushes.
What varieties are you really into right now?
Hands down, the fruit I'm most in love with right now isn't an apple at all, it's the pawpaw. Not only is it an endemic fruit to North America, it's delicious. Sort of like vanilla/banana custard. It really tastes tropical but grows handily in temperate climates like Chicago's. When large scale agriculture began developing at the beginning of the 20th century, pawpaws which are difficult to ship and lost popularity, but I've read that both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew pawpaws at their homes.
What do you tell people who don't see the need for rare varieties and don't understand why having Red Delicious and Honey Crisp apples isn't enough?
There are tens of thousands of varieties of apples, each with a distinct flavor, aroma and texture but the vast majority of apples available to consumers only come from a few varieties. It's like if you'd only tried one or two varieties of wine. For the most part, commercial varieties that make it to market are chosen for their color, consistency, ripening time, and shelf life – not their taste. Furthermore, just like each of those tens of thousands of varieties have their own flavors, they also have other characteristics, like disease resistance. If you only grow one or two varieties and those varieties get sick, you're in bad shape. Monocultures are not only culinarily boring, they're also agriculturally unsound.
What kind of response have you received from people around Chicago?
Nothing but enthusiasm. From aldermen, to neighbors, to gardeners, to restaurants, everyone has been incredibly encouraging. The folks at Uncommon Ground are even building us a signature cocktail.
Do you prefer to enjoy fruit on its own, in recipes or all of the above? Any great fruit recipes you've been enjoying lately?
Throughout the holiday break I was scarfing down my mom's Quince Paste, which uses quince from her neighbor's tree. She says the recipe is her own invention, based on reading a bunch of different sources.
Instructions from Dave's mom
I scrub, quarter, and core the quince. In a pot big enough to hold them, I cover them with water and boil +/- 20 minutes until tender. Then puree them in the blender and put the pulp through a sieve. Some quince aren't very juicy so if the puree seems a little too thick, you can add a little water before you put it through the sieve. (one time I tried baking them in the oven, but this is quicker).
For every 3 lbs of quince you start with, you'll need to mix the strained pulp with about 2 cups of sugar. Taste, though, to see how it is. Put the pulp and sugar in a large pot over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly until the pulp is thick and pulls away from the sides. The longer you cook it the darker and stiffer the result will be.
Pour the paste into an oiled pan or one lined with parchment. The size of the pan depends on how thick you want the pieces and how much paste you have. I usually use an 8x8 or 9x9 pan. Refrigerate and when set, turn it out on a cutting board and slice into pieces. Wrapped well, the pieces will keep in the fridge for a few months."
CROP will hold a fundraiser at Uncommon Ground on January 25. Admission is $20 and includes a CROP cocktail, which will be unveiled at the event, as well as hors d'ouvres. Purchase tickets at Brown Paper Tickets.
Related: Ginkgo Organic Gardens in Chicago