Fresh Fruit, Over a Hundred Years Old!


how often does one get to taste hundred-year-old apples?

Today I went to a meeting of the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, where the topic of conversation was Felix Gillet, one of the very first nurserymen in the state of California.

Monsieur Gillet established Barren Hills nursery in California's Gold Country in 1871, where he sold hundreds of varieties of fruit and nut trees, imported from all over the world. Current research suggests that Monsieur Gillet may have introduced many, many of the fruits that we still eat today in the United States.

The speaker, Amigo Cantisano, stumbled across Monsier Gillet about thirty years ago. Since that time has been exploring the counties around the site of the original Nevada City nursery, locating old fruit trees that would have been purchased and planted over a hundred years ago. He's working with the original catalogs from the Barren Hills nursery, and from Gillet's writings, and has made it a mission to protect these unique old trees.

historic texts provide information about heritage crops

While some of the fruits that Gillet brought to America are still being grown, others are unknown to the nursery trade. Many of the heritage trees that have been located are resistant to diseases and pests, and thus have great value to contemporary growers.Some of the trees that Cantisano has found are so obscure that their names have been lost. He and his colleagues are fruit sleuths, pouring over antique agricultural publications, seeking clues to the identity of mystery fruit trees.

At the meeting today, we sampled fruits and nuts from trees dating back over a hundred years. It was thrilling and delicious.

Cantisano has founded the Felix Gillet Institute (no web site yet, alas, but here's a great article) and is slowly propagating young cuttings of these ancient trees. In the next few years, he hopes to be able to return these "lost" fruits to market.

The meeting was held at the horticultural department of Diablo Valley College. We had a quick tour of their public facilities, which were very impressive.

And, of course, we shared the fruit that we've been growing. These are Australian Finger Limes.

Break them in half, and twist them, and they release their vesicles. Robb and I are trying to figure how to use them on a cornmeal dessert.

Many people brought in Pineapple Guavas. I can't even begin to describe their flavor.

I have access to some of these fruits, and will have to check their ripeness. If you see me out-and-about, grubbing around under the bushes, please avert your eyes.

My camera failed to capture the freaky day-glow pink color of this rose-petal jelly. Had I not been in the room with the rare fruit growers, there's No Way in Hell I would have eaten anything this color.

It was a wonderful day for food experiences, and learning about things both old and new.


Myrrhia Resneck said…
I was surprised that in the German grocery store, they had the same varieties of apples we get in the U.S. "Granny Smith" "Golden Delicious" "Braeburn" (their names in English. It looks like many of these varieties were developed in NZ and AU. they did have some strange and amazingly interesting cabbage varieties. I took pictures.
Noreen said…
Australian Finger Limes. Never heard of them or saw them. I don't think I would have ever thought to see if they were edible. Somehow, a lime having such "vesicles" sort of creeps me out. But, no one has ever accused me of having adventurous taste buds.
What a fabulous event! I love CRFG, and am so glad we became members. The only trouble is we have so much fun grafting, we clearly need a larger orchard area! Last weekend we discovered a neighboring farm has ancient pear trees on the property that produce 2 lb pears! They're not great for eating out of hand, but are fabulous in baked desserts, and probably well suited to canning. Most importantly, they still produce fruit after years and years of complete neglect by the prior owners. As such, we've asked for some scions when they do their winter pruning this season, as they're obviously well adapted to growing here. I just wish their name hadn't been lost over the decades.
Anonymous said…
between this and the mitten workshop, i can barely stand how jealous i am .
Anna P said…
OOHHHH! My beloved granfather was a produce buyer in Los Angeles and he had a backyard filled with exotic trees-- one of which was a guava tree-- they looked like thes pineapple guavas. I have fond childhood memories of shaking the tree and eating the rainfall of guavas with my cousins. Yum.....
Pamina said…
Very cool! I've been meaning to join. Btw, Where did you get your Australian finger lime tree? I'm hoping to put one in this year.
Lisa said…
Myrrhia -- That's really depressing. Perhaps you'll find a better shop.

Noreen -- I was sort of amused to use this obscure word.

Clare -- I loved your blog about those pears. I think I may have seen some of them this weekend. Yellow and HUGE?

Vanessa -- C'mon! You're cooking with quince!

Anna -- How would you describe your childhood guavas? I feel like there's a strange solvent flavor to them, but I can't name it.

Pamina -- the finger limes weren't mine, but you can buy them from Four Winds growers. I think the plants stay pretty small.
Kristen said…
I very much hope that Mr. Cantisano has some success in shoving these heirloom and unique fruits onto the market. I keep reading about how all of our food these days is Roundup-Ready and it just grosses me out--the chemical makeup of the food and the stranglehold a few seed/pesticide companies have on the entire nation's farmers, soil, and consumers. Anything that is already resilient and pest-resistant that can be grown in a variety of climates (thus bypassing the necessity of ensuring it is transport-sturdy and bland) would be greatly appreciated. I for one would be content to never consume another Red Tasteless or Granny Granite.

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