A rosy future: Five generations growing apples
We talk to Hawke's Bay orchardists - John and Paul Paynter - about what we can expect in our fruit bowls soon
Few desserts can match an apple pie — wholesome, good-looking and heart-warming, a complementary pairing of fresh sweetness contained (all being well) in crisp, buttery pastry. And though I have cooked scores of apple crumbles and apple cakes and apple sponges, even the occasional tarte tatin, I had never once (according to my daughter) made her an apple pie.This was finally corrected late last year. My, thankfully successful, pie was made from ballarat apples that, though fluffy, didn’t turn to mush, and were tart but not horribly so.
Those old-fashioned ballarats were the star of the show, something that would not have surprised fifth generation Hawke's Bay orchardist Paul Paynter, whose family markets a diverse and, frankly exciting, range of apples and stone fruit under their Yummy brand.
“We grow ballarat which is an old cooker — it makes sensational pies and is better cooked than granny smith,” he says. “While both tend to be quite fluffy, ballarat has a more intense and lingering flavour. Granny smith took over because it’s a dual-purpose apple and most people actually eat it fresh. Ballarat is a one-trick pony — you need a bit of courage to eat one fresh.”
Rather than looking back, Paul sees the future as being crisp and new and sweet. “People talk about how great apples used to be, but our memories can deceive us. Apples today are better. We have some old trees out the back and I wouldn’t plant any of them.”
He should know. The Paynter family has been growing stonefruit and apples since 1862 when executive chairman John Paynter’s great-grandfather bought land in Nelson that had a few apple trees on it. He realised the population was going to be in the North Island, so he upped sticks to Hastings.
Yummy’s corporate office is still run from the old family homestead, its financial controller at a desk in what was once John’s boyhood bedroom. Today John’s son Paul is the general manager, overseeing 700 hectares of apples and stonefruit that keep more than 100 fulltime staff busy and provide an income for up to 300 seasonal workers. Another son, Jonathan, oversees its biggest single orchard run. Yummy also runs its own packhouse and delivers apples in its own temperature-controlled trucks.
"Hawkes Bay has a combination of attributes that might sound a little boring but are actually terribly exciting, Paul says. “You need a benign climate, without too many frost risks. You need less than 1000mm of rain, (too much rain creates disease problems) and you need great soils. Hawkes Bay has the best soils in the world. You have no idea how good they are in comparison with tired old European soils that have been farmed for 2000 years.”
Yummy’s most popular apple, Paul says, is probably royal gala, followed by NZ rose. “Royals are pretty but, for me, have only average crunch and flavour. I think there are better apples out there now, like sweetango, ambrosia and lemonade.
“It’s our job to get people excited about eating fruit. We’re only just getting started with the sweetango [the season has just finished] and ambrosia [which has the lowest fruit acidityof any apple]. Right now they’re less than 10 per cent of our production, but that will change over the next three years.
“The really exciting new frontier is red-fleshed apples. We have some new varieties out of France and some are being bred in New Zealand, too. Red fleshed apples tend to taste different — more like strawberries. They look quite spectacular, too, so I think they’ll be sought after."
So are our apples getting sweeter, like almost everything else in the Western diet?
“I think we’ve seen a sweetening of the palate here in New Zealand,” Paul says, “but apples have the same amount of sugar they’ve always had. The acid is lower, so the perceived sweetness is higher.
“The trend has been driven by the change in export markets, from shipping almost exclusively to Mother England, to Asia now being the big payer. In New Zealand we’ve seen the slow demise of the sturmer-eating, Scottish Presbyterian grandmother from Gore. The market has become more diverse and it’s our job to deliver a portfolio of tastes.”
Exporting may be changing what we value in our fruit but the Paynter family is careful to keep things as close to home as possible. “We export a small percentage of our crop. Mostly the sizes and varieties the market doesn’t like here. In the USA, for instance, they like big everything and apples are no exception.
"New Zealand is our priority market and we sell here because we like to be close to retail and the consumer. It makes the business more exciting to me. Export is useful to get feedback from other markets about what they like and also what new apples are appearing on shelves offshore.”
Mindful early on of the benefits of marketing, the company was the first in the world to “sticker” fruit.
“The essence of our philosophy comes from being integrated,” Paul adds. “We do everything from importing and testing new varieties to having demonstrators hand out samples in stores. That takes a lot of resources and no one else has managed to replicate what we do in New Zealand.”
Know your apples: Paul’s tips
- Ballarat is best for pies and granny smith is good to cook with too. Forget about cooking with royal gala — in restaurants you see things on the dessert menu like “baked royal gala apple” and you cringe.
- The best keeping apple is probably red delicious.They honestly taste better after storing them for a few months. There are some funny things that occur in storage. Firstly there is some evidence that the antioxidant level inapples goes up in storage. It sounds impossible but it’s true. Secondly, and you won’t believe this either, some apples get crunchier. What happens is the cell structure changes so there is more trauma caused when you bite them. That crunch you like is really cell walls and membranes being torn apart by your teeth. Sometimes the cells are more inclined to be like ball bearings and your teeth just slide through them without causing much damage; and sometimes they are more angular and total epicurean carnage ensues.
- Best slow-to-brown apple to slice for a salad or lunchbox is ambrosia (photographed above).
- Storage: Apples respire, like all living things, and they are dying from the moment they’re picked. You can slow the respiration down with temperature. Storing them in you rfridge is best but maybe you’re more likely to eat them if you let a few call you from the fruit bowl.
Paul on pesticides
People freak out that growers are trying to poison them with endless pesticides. That is simply not the case. The human toxicity of our production systems has been reduced by about 97 per cent in the last 20 years. Organic works well for some crops but not so much for apples. The principles are that anything natural is safe and inherently good, but anything synthetic is poisonous and bad. That isn't correct. The synthetic seats in my car are better than the leather ones I once had. Those Lycra leggings are more comfortable than any natural ones; plastic light switches seem to be all you can get - where synthetic products work better, we accept them in our lives.
Our key reason for not growing organically is that, for apples, we think it's worse for the environment than what we do now. The organic guys spray two-three times as often as we do. Those with home gardens will know that compounds like copper can be very useful. Copper is a natural organic compound but it's also a heavy metal that is highly toxic to humans and extremely persistent in the soil. If I grew apples in a desert climate, like say Argentina, I think I might do it organically. Our benign climate means we grow everything well, including pests and diseases, so organics in apples is a real challenge for now.
People think nature, left to its own devices, is a wonderful, harmonious thing. From a distance it looks that way, but up close its total Darwinian carnage with plants, insects, fungi and bacteria all fighting for their lives and doing the vilest things to each other.
The weather is the key factor that causes nature to get hopelessly out of whack. The approach these days is to monitor things and try to keep them in balance. It's the gentle hand rather than the iron fist of chemicals we used a generation ago.
To grow organically, we need new varieties with polygenetic disease resistance. The breeders are working on it...