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Inside Long Island's fruit farms

Braeburn apples at Milk Pail Orchard in Water

Great food is slow food. A radish goes from seed to salad in few weeks, but an apple takes a decade. A peach tree needs five years to bear fruit, a cherry about seven. It takes an old farm to grow the best, and only a few Long Island families have been around long enough: men and women with the skill and the attention spans to raise the finest fruit.

On a mild April afternoon last year, I climbed into the cab of Clark McCombe’s Bobcat to see the spring bloom at Briermere in Riverhead, where his family has farmed ever since 1961. Even before McCombe’s father, Leonard, a photojournalist for LIFE magazine, bought the property, fruit trees had been growing on it for 40 years. Today, about 200 acres of the land is planted in rows of berries, peaches, nectarines, plums, pears and apples.

I particularly wanted see the gooseberries, a plant that is rarely grown these days, and more’s the pity. Gooseberries have a complex flavor and a load of pectin that gives them substantial texture when cooked, which makes them ideal for pies and jellies. They are the most beautiful of berries, light green to deep purple, with veins of pink like fine marble.

The rows of gooseberries at Briermere have been productive for decades; the first ones were planted 52 years ago. The bushes are about shoulder high, and on this day, they were the greenest thing around, covered in new leaves and tiny flower buds with delicate tendrils that would produce berries in July. McCombe remembered tending the boy- sized plants was one of the first farm jobs he was entrusted with as an eight-year-old, in spite of the menacing, needlelike thorns. When I returned in July to get gooseberries for a few weeks of cobblers and fools (see recipe, below), I bought enough to freeze a few bags against winter days when I would need fruit.

When a fruit variety is called heirloom, it means the plants are handed down from generation to generation, freely propagated by farmers and gardeners, and sometimes even grow wild. Heirloom fruit varieties are usually at least 50 years old, and rarely commercially viable, but most established farms grow a few anyway, for reasons sentimental as well as practical.

“Heirloom fruit is so difficult, so gnarly, has so many negative attributes that it just isn’t a satisfactory fruit for a commercial farm operation,” said Tom Wickham of Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue. “You can have some to talk about, but not to rely on as the only fruit you are going to sell. You will be out of business in no time.”

Strawberries are the first fruit of a Long Island summer, and for Tom Wickham, whose family has been farming in Cutchogue since the 1640s, they are an excellent example of why cultivating the traits of heirloom fruit is so important, even if trying to sell actual heirloom fruit can break your heart.

Strawberries on Long Island used to grow in lockstep with the length of the days, reaching the peak of ripeness when there was most daylight, around June 21, and producing large, delicious fruit that was picked and eaten in a matter of weeks. But in Europe, heirloom strawberry varieties paid no attention to day length, producing fingertip-sized strawberries all summer long, often full of tiny seeds and sometimes more pink than red, even when fully ripe. Wickham said scientists at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva decided to breed a better berry. “They started crossing those little, long-bearing strawberries with luscious large, red berries we have on Long Island, and lo and behold, they finally got several varieties that are really very nice.” The everbearing strawberry hybrids have largely replaced old varieties that bore fruit in June and then took the rest of the growing season off. “Those old varieties have wonderful traits. The problem is how to integrate those traits with the wonderful traits we want today,” said Wickham.

Laurie McBride is the Wickham’s farm stand manager, a twelve-year veteran of the Cornell agricultural stewardship program, where she helped local farmers translate science into on-farm applications. Sitting in the Wickham family farmhouse, the spiritual center of this 400-year-old-plus enterprise, she and Tom Wickham described the all-too-brief cherry harvest centered around the Fourth of July—a few weeks of fruit joy preceded by decades of cultivating, and eventually removing old trees as they age. “We had a tree up against the house that we planted in the late ’50s, that gave us our first cherries, planted by my father,” Wickham said.

“Yes, and you just took that cherry tree down,” McBride said. “We just planted more cherry trees, and it will be five to seven years before that planting is in full swing. The first two seasons, the tree is working on its roots.”

Many pears qualify for the heirloom moniker. At the edge of a Briermere field yards from Long Island Sound, McCombe introduced me to a Bartlett tree that is still producing fruit after nearly 100 years, quite a record of fecundity. “That’s the last of the original pear planting,” he said. “Dennis Gash, a hired hand who was here when my father bought the farm, was like a grandfather to me. He started working this land in 1920, and he remembered planting these trees.”

Pears are a crop my father loved,” said Tom Wickham. “The old saying ‘grow pears for your heirs’ has two meanings. It takes forever to get them to fruit, and once you do, they last forever.”

At Wickham’s, Anjou and Bartlett are among the pears his father planted in the 1980s. Flemish Beauty is a 100-year old variety that is new to the Wickham’s farm, meaning he planted them a few years back, and they are just now starting to bear fruit.

Spend time looking at a family’s orchard, and you start to recognize traits that are as much markers of the clan as the cultivars. At Milk Pail, Jennifer Halsey Dupree and Amy Halsey are the 12th generation of their family to farm in Water Mill, on the shores of Mecox Bay. Halseys have worked this land since the 17th century. The sisters’ side-by-side homes (their parents’ home is next door) share the best backyard ever—20 acres of blooming, productive fruit trees in undulating rows that stretch to the bay, with Dune Road and the Atlantic Ocean visible just beyond.

Dupree said Granny Smith apples have been part of Milk Pail’s orchard since her father started growing fruit on this land 40 years ago. “We still have two rows of Granny Smith from the early ’80s,” she said. “They are very productive, but we had to replant some because of flooding from the bay. I had no plans of replacing them before that.” Milk Pail’s Granny Smiths are not the uniform baseball-size fruit found in supermarket bins. “Our Granny Smiths have a nice pink blush on them, and they vary a bit in shape and size. A Granny Smith in the supermarket, they are all exactly the same size and the same shade of green.”

“We are a mile from the ocean, which makes us one of the latest-blooming orchards in New York State,” said Dupree. However, the moderating effect of the ocean gives Milk Pail the longest possible fall growing season. “I was harvesting Pink Lady apples right through Thanksgiving last year,” she said. “They have a real pizzazz flavor.”  

In Wickham’s opinion, the most flavorful apple on his farm is a greenish-brown fruit with no official name. It is sweet and tart, with a great crunch. “A grower in Virginia found a branch, liked it and saved it, somehow it got to the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, and then we grew them here. We love them, but never found a commercial market. We call them Razor.”

In 1982, Woodside Orchard was born in Jamesport when Robert H. Gammon began planting what would eventually be 28 varieties of apple trees on 40 acres. He rigged up an old irrigation trailer to serve as a farm stand when he started harvesting a few years later. “The raccoons ate more of my stuff than I got to sell,” said Gammon, so he moved a cabin from a former day camp at nearby Laurel Lake to the orchard, where it has served as a raccoon- resistant farm stand ever since. “When you are in agriculture, you’ve got to be self-sufficient,” he said.

Among the varieties Gammon planted was the Arkansas Black, a dark beauty of the apple world developed by De Kalb Holt in his Arkansas orchard in the 1850s. The Arkansas Black apple is almost purple in hue and turns darker as it matures. Crisp with a tart flavor, it keeps well, and like many older cultivars, its flavor continues to develop as it ages.

Gammon’s sons Bob and Scott joined him in the 1990s and now run the business. It was Bob Gammon’s inspiration to take advantage of the very large number of apple varieties the family grew to make a product that hadn’t been huge on Long Island since the 19th century. Hard cider.

Bob Gammon, co-owner of Woodside Orchards in Jamesport
An Arkansas Black apple at Woodside Orchards in
Crates of harvested apples at Woodside Orchards in
Left: Bob Gammon, co-owner of Woodside Orchards. Top: An Arkansas Black apple at Woodside Orchards. Bottom: Crates of harvested apples at Woodside Orchards in Jamesport. Photo credit: Randee Daddona

“For hard cider, you need that blend,” said Bob. “Our apples are coming in from late August through November, and then they are in storage.” Woodside’s cidermaking operation opened in nearby Aquebogue in 2012. Open year-round, it uses most of the 28 cultivars, including Golden Russet, a very old American variety known as an outstanding cider apple, to create a sophisticated menu of ciders with flavors from Champagne-like to fruity.

For the last stop of my seasonal Long Island fruit tour, I circled back to Briermere on a sunny October day, where I admired a bushy row of Newtown Pippins—100 trees about 20 years old, that will produce, with careful pruning, for another 20.

The Newtown Pippin, which was first cultivated in Newtown (now Elmhurst, Queens) in 1759, is the oldest apple in the United States and one of the few heirloom apples that is still commercially viable. This green apple is firm and crisp. It is extremely fragrant and develops a sweeter and fuller flavor after a few months of cold storage—that is, 30 degrees at 90 percent humidity. (It’s closer to basement than refrigerator conditions, in case you are thinking of trying this at home).

In a world full of “new and improved” foods, these old fruit varieties are not just a taste of the flavorful past, but a living link to generations of American growers on some of the nation’s oldest farms. They’re reason enough to eat your way through the season.

Gooseberry Fool recipe

 

Culinarily speaking, a fool is a chilled dessert that involves whipped cream (or custard) gently mixed with stewed or mashed fruit, and it is a boon for people who love dessert, but don’t/won’t/can’t bake. The name may come from the French word fouler (“to trample”), but fool is an English dish and belongs to a category of desserts that includes tri e. Like the fruit farms of Long Island, gooseberry fool has a history going back to the 17th century. If you can’t nd gooseberries, with their complex sweet-tart avor, don’t worry: Other soft fruits, such as red currants, strawberries, raspberries or blackberries will work well, too. Just adjust the sugar to taste. Serves 4.

 

INGREDIENTS

2 cups ripe gooseberries

6 tablespoons sugar, plus more to taste if necessary

1/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest

3/4 cup heavy cream

 

1. In a saucepan, heat the gooseberries with 2 tablespoons sugar over low heat until they break down into a soft, juicy mash. Force the fruit through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing out the juice with the back of a spoon. Discard the stems and seeds.

2. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and the grated lemon zest to the puréed fruit. Taste it for sweetness and add more sugar if needed. Let the sweetened purée cool to room temperature.

3. Beat the cream in a bowl with an electric mixer until it gains volume, then add the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Beat until cream holds soft peaks. Gently but thoroughly fold in the cooled fruit purée. Spoon into 4 glasses, cover tightly and refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.

More information

BRIERMERE FARMS: 4414 Sound Ave., Riverhead; 631-722-3931, briermerefarms.com

MILK PAIL FRESH MARKET: 1346 Montauk Hwy., Water Mill; 631-537-2565, milk-pail.com

WICKHAM’S FRUIT FARM: 28700 Main Rd., Cutchogue; wickhamsfruitfarm.com

WOODSIDE ORCHARDS: 116 Manor Lane, Jamesport; 631 722-5770, woodsideorchards.com

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