A culinary tour through the biggest fruit growing area of northern Europe

Just a short hop away from the vibrating town of Hamburg is located the biggest fruit growing area of Northern Europe called “Altes Land” (old land). There are growing about 18 million fruit trees, 90% of them are apples. The remaining 10 % are mainly cherries, pears and plums. It takes 4.500 bee colonies with about 1,2 million bees to pollinate all these trees. Many of those colonies have to be transported from other regions to fulfill that job.

I’ve spent a few days in that area to discover its culinary side and to learn more about the growing of fruits. Therefore I’ve joined several guided tours through the orchards and first thing I’ve learned that there are existing about 30.000 different kind of apples. 4.000 of them are growing in Germany and the number is increasing permanently as new sorts are invented. The most popular ones are „Gala“, „Braeburn“, „Granny Smith“, „Elstar“ and so on. Farmers do need to buy certain licenses if they want to plant specific sorts of apples as those are invented to carry better fruits, be resistent against diseases and to stand each weather condition. It’s kind of an extra fee to support the inventing of robust sorts of apple trees.

Framers do often mix those kind of trees on their farm land to meet the needs of the customer and to allocate the risk of loosing the harvest through weather conditions or diseases. A few days ago was a intense hailstorm which unfortunately damaged loads of the apples and most of the harvest. That will cause that many of them can’t be sold directly to the customer. Furthermore they will be used for making juice which is of a lower financial benefits for the farms. Once more that makes clear how intensely agriculture is depending on weather conditions and/or the impact of parasites and diseases. Many farmers are following strict rules to act as an organic supplier and therefore they can’t do that much against parasites or diseases either.

Another main danger for the orchard is the temperature. That’s why fruit farmers are using certain irrigation systems to cover the trees with a fine mist of water to protect them against extreme temperatures. The irrigation systems are either cooling trees in the summer or protecting them against minus degrees at cold winter nights. This year that area had 12 freezing nights in spring which were a lot in comparison to the past. They are getting the water out of the river Elbe which is connected through small canals and pumps to the fields of the fruits. People from the Netherlands cultivated that area many hundreds of years ago and made it that fruitful. They did that in different steps and cultivated the first „belt“ around the river first. When that was done they cultivated the next belt called „new land“, which gave the first one the name „old land“. That’s how that area became it’s name also.

In the mid of August is starting the harvest of those apple trees. Last years it’s been 300.000 tons of apples. Those are harvested by hand and transported to the storage areas. There they are washed, checked and allocated to different quality levels. After that they are getting stored in certain cooling houses with temperatures between 2-4 degrees (depending on the sort of apple) and a lower level of oxygen. That makes them edible for many months up to several years!

In German supermarkets every third apple is growing in that area which makes clear how much there are actually growing!

I’ve stayed at an apple farm called „Obsthof Lefers“ (https://lefers.de) and was lucky to join the farmer Cord and his dog on his daily walks through the orchard. By that I learned a lot of interesting facts about apples. It was also time for the cherry harvest and they are opening a specific orchard for the public to pick the fruits by themselves. So I equipped myself with a basket and climbed through the trees hunting for the best cherries. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed my stay a lot! Thanks Cord for answering all my questions 🙂

Fortunately there was also a distillery located on that farm, called „Nordik“ (https://www.nordik-edelbrennerei.de) and I meet Arndt and his wife for a very interesting chat about their products. They are producing different sorts of alcohol also using the fruits from that area. Arndt showed me the distillery and explained the different steps of producing good alcohol and how to catch the „spirit“ of each sort in the best way. I was surprised how much effort (and input!) It takes to gain the final product. There are three parts within the second distillation process depending on the temperature and therefore the composition of the alcohol. There is the preliminary heat , the middle run and the after run. It’s just the middle run, the so-called heart of the distillate, which is of an interest. The middle run is just a small portion of the general outcome.

Arndt found his business eight years ago but was working in that industry many years before that. He has a wide range of products like fruit schnapps, whiskey, rum, gin and even egg nog. 

After picking those cherries by myself and buying some apple schnapps at Arndts place I was prepared for a regional dish I’ve created by myself. I made some rice pudding with the aroma of tonka bean and served it with reduced cherries cooked in apple juice mixed with some apple schnaps at the end. It was fantastic and the perfect end to my stay in the „old country“.


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