Khazakhstan

Louise Fresco [narrating]: Eating is our most intimate way of interacting with nature. Nature is what we eat. If you do that negligently, wasting food, not knowing where it comes from, goes against the idea that we should inhabit the earth responsibly. Food is knowledge and awareness, because there is a moral dimension to food.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Heavenly Mountains. They’re on the border between China and Khazakhstan. All the apples we eat nowadays originated here. All the varieties: red or green, sweet or tart. The apple’s long journey to the rest of the world started here.

[At night, driving through a dense forest.]

Yuri: Those are apple trees.
Louise: Yes. There are red apples there. You saw them? Here too.
Yuri: You can take them through the window.
Louise: They’re not entirely ripe yet. And here too, there are some red apples. You see? And some small green ones.
Sergej: You have to keep left here, Yuri. Stay a bit more to the left.
Yuri: Not here?
Sergej: Keep left, keep left. Don’t go too near the right. Left, left, Yuri.
Yuri: I’m not here for the first time.
Sergej: You’re doing well, Yuri. You’re hired!
Yuri: Another steep slope.
Louise: Yes, what a lot of apple trees. Wonderful.
Yuri: It’s here, isn’t it?
Sergej: It’s steep.
Yuri: I’ll get into a lower gear.
Sergej: Right.
Yuri: Keep right, eh?
Sergej: Faster, faster.
Louise: Thank you.
Yuri: You should thank Sergej, our guide.

At a farmstead in the Heavenly Mountains, Khazakhstan

Louise: This is a wild apple. It’s the forefather… No, it’s the same species as our own apple. It could have come from our supermarket if it weren’t for those spots. But the very shape, the size, is right. And it’s nearly always so that the forefathers of apples, or the forefathers of what we eat now, look very different. This one is not ripe yet, but I bet it’s quite edible. It’s the amazing thing about them: that the taste and the shape have in fact never changed.

[Sitting on the veranda]

Louise: It’s not very up to date, but I bought this atlas in 1981, when I worked in Africa. Long before the days of GPS and mobile phone apps. But it’s very useful if you want a quick overview.

This is a great map, because it shows the Chinese culture in the East as well as Mesopotamia. And you see the enourmous distances people travelled along the Silk Routes, roads people used for a thousand years. I will show you where we are. Let me get it right. We are in that small area. It’s on the border between China and Khazakhstan.

The Silk Routes, as there was more than one, went either round the South or round the North, but they always passed the Heavenly Mountains. That’s us here.

This area was never affected by an ice age of any sort. Northern Europe and North America were covered in ice. Quite recently. Even 12.000 years ago there were still remains of the ice age in The Netherlands. We don’t have any ancient vegetation where we live. But this region has been undisturbed for millions of years. And it took the apple about six thousand years to travel from here to Mesopotamia, and then to spread itself, usually over land, via Turkey and Bulgaria to Europe and the Mediterranean. And three hundred years later it was in the rest of the world.

[Together with Alken Burungazov on the veranda, during a heavy rain shower.]

Alken: My name is Burungazov, Alken Burungazov. I’m the director of the Lepsinsk section of the Djungar Alatau Nature Reserve. If the rain doesn’t worry you, we can go. I don’t know how long it will take. You’ll get wet and catch a cold.

[Riding through the area on horseback, still raining. Apples on the ground everywhere. Louise gets down and studies some horse manure.]

Team, off-camera: What are you checking?
Louise: Whether the horses had eaten apples. Yes, I think… No, they are other pips.

One of the main ways for apple seads to spread was via horses, who would eat the apples and the pips. And horses cover greater distances than bears, outside the woods, and that’s how the apples spread along the Silk Routes. Horses were first tamed in this region about seven thousand years ago. Wild horses became tame horses. And that is when the spread of apples from this area gained momentum. Bears stay in the woods, but the horses went along the Silk Routes, and that explains the relative speed of the process. It’s interesting: horses chew, and that makes the pips come away from the apple. If the pip doesn’t come out of the apple, it can’t germinate. Because the horse chews, the skin of the pip is damaged. That helps it to germinate. Those are important conditions for the propagation of apples. Another condition is a cold period. For two months, it must be around zero degrees Celsius, or they won’t germinate.

This horse has been eating grass. I can still see the grass seeds. This horse wasn’t a keen apple eater.

[To the horse:] You should eat more apples!

[Along the road, a horse eats an apple. The group stops again.]

Gids: That’s bear dung.
Louise: Really? [Squats to inspect bear dung.] What we see here is totally different. Hey, an apple pip! There it is. Let me get it out.
Team: Is that going to be an apple tree?
Louise: A whole apple forest. There are a lot of pips. But the question is if they have been damaged enough in the digestion process to germinate. I must take a closer look.

This one doesn’t look too good. I mean, I don’t know if it’s damaged enough for a seedling to grow out of it. I’ll try and find another one.

But it confirms the whole story that you need horse dung or bear dung, because it’s good manure. This one has the right pips in it.
Team: How long have they been here?
Louise: This is quite fresh. it could be last night’s. There was a lot of rain. Yuck… He has also been eating something else. I see an undamaged piece of apple. He hasn’t even digested it. Well, the conclusion is: bears eat fruit. The pips are digested and end up in a nice blob of manure. And that grows into an apple forest.

It’s fantastic that a forest can be so old and still rejuvenate all the time. Especially if you realise that man has only been active here for a short while. The idea of continuity in the vegetation on earth, a continuity that has gone on before us and will go on after us, that’s a wonderful idea and makes it kind of paradisiacal.

[Sitting under a tree.]

Louise: The thing that makes it so special for me is that my great hero probably also walked here: Nikolai Vavilov, the Soviet botanist and geneticist. He was the first man to see the correlation between natural variation, botanic variation, and the possibility to improve crops. We know he was here in 1929.

He was concerned about the food supply of the Soviet Union and travelled across the five continents to study various crops.

He identified the genetic centres, the centres of origin as he called them. He studied rice, wheat, and also apples.

In a way, he laid the foundation for the Green Revolution. In the 1960s, wheat, corn and rice varieties were improved, so that maybe a billion people in Asia were saved from starvation. Vavilov’s story did not have a happy ending. He opposed a man who was supported by Stalin: Lysenko, the biologist who thought you could educate plants just like people. If treated better, they would become genetically better. That proved not to be so. In 1939 Vavilov was arrested, in fact not very far from here, and in 1943 he died in prison as a result of starvation.

[Louise stands outside, looking into a mirror.]

Louise: I’m looking in the mirror at the landscape. The mirror provides a frame, so I can concentrate on what I see.

[Mirror shot]

This is the influence of people on the mountains, The Heavenly Mountains. We see what happens when man meddles with the ecosystem.

People felled trees, party out of poverty, partly because in the 1930s, under Stalin, they were forced to turn this into arable land. And for people from the steppes, every tree is firewood. And apple trees are good firewood. We keep seeing this battle between man and the ecosystem. It’s a sombre story with a positive side. Because we now have ways to protect at least a part of this.
Team: So you’re not sorry about it?
Louise: Of couse I’m sorry that the original forests have gone. But I also know that hunger will drive people to harm the environment. It is one of the reasons why it is good to make sure there is economic growth. The less hunger, the less damage to the landscape. A rich country can afford to protect something. In poor countries all trees are felled.

In the distance you see the snow-capped mountains and a deep valley inbetween. It is probably one of thise passages in the Silk Routes where people crossed the mountains to the West. With apple seeds in their saddlebags. And in the horses’ stomachs yet more apple seeds. That is how our apple moved into the Babylonian Empire.

[Louise buys apples from a roadside stand.]

Verkoopster: Aport.
Louise: Yes, I remember. And this is Sultanat?
Verkoopster: That is a pear.
Louise: I’ll write that down.
Verkoopster: There you are, may you enjoy them.
Louise: I think that’s very sweet of you.

[On the road.]

Louise: The Silk Route still exists: that ancient artery between East and West. It’s a trade route along which many items were disseminated. Goods, but also plants and animals. Apples, cherries, rice, but also horses found their way to the West.

This section of the Silk Route leads to Alma-Aty, the city of apples. From this stopping place the apple started on its long journey.

Botanical Garden Almaty

Man: The guide has his day off. I can’t come with you.
Louise: I’ll go and look for myself. I’ll be back.
Man: I have to stay here.

[Louise enters the botanical gardens.]

Louise: No apple trees to be seen. And there aren’t any signs anywhere. There is plastic lying around, there are dogs. I have no idea what’s here. They’re making a border with lavender plants. This isn’t a botanical garden. It’s a silly plot with a few trees. This is the cradle of apples in the world, so you’d expect a wonderful collection of our eating apples and all related varieties, all catalogued so you know what you’re looking at. That would have educational and scientific value, but there’s nothing at all. I can’t find any information. I simply have no idea. What a sad state of affairs… I am shocked.

[Louise explores.]

No… Nothing there either. There is a tropical hothouse, though. Without apples, because that’s not a tropical fruit.

[Louise explores some more.]

A useless stretch of grass. Not an apple to be seen. Incredible that they call this a botanical garden.

[Louise tries to unlock a fence.]

This is not entirely legal, but since I got this far, I want to see it. What on earth can I say about it? It’s pretty unspeakable. This has got to be it. This was it. There were all kinds of things here, but it’s all overgrown by grass. In the far distance there are a few trees that may have been wild varieties. I know that Vavilov and his students set up this garden. It’s one the the fifteen gardens he had in the Soviet Union with a great number of varieties. But this has been neglected for so long. It’s a grass jungle.

[Louise pulls some weeds from a tree.]

It’s diffcult to see if they are this old. it has been done for ages: in Mesopotamia, about 4000 years ago, they already knew how to graft trees. They would take the bottom half of a tree that developed particularly good roots, and grafted in top of it a tree that just produced a lot. So you got the best qualities combined. Grafting is a sensitive process. It’s risky, because you open both of them and you try to get them to fuse. It can get contaminated. But this one is too old to tell properly. You can see young shoots appeared, but they do seem to belong together. Team: Why was the Soviet not interested in it? Louise: Soon after these gardens were developed, there came that terrible period with the famine in the Ukraine. Lysenko, Vavilov’s opponent, wasn’t interested in genetics. He just wanted to plant every field full of crops. Then came the Second World War, that made so many victims, and so influenced the economy, that it all had a very slow start. There were good scientists, but they didn’t have the means. With such a collection you have to exchange with other countries. I was talking about the eating apples here, but many related species are in China and in Europe. We have a very ancient ancestor in the crab apple. It’s a small, very tart, green apple. That’s now a European variety. If you have an isolated collection and you don’t maintain it, and researchers may not communicate with the outside world, then it stagnates. That’s not a living collection. You plant these trees outside their envirionment, because you want to study how great the variations are. In the woods we may see a tree that is different, but is it genetically different? Or is it different because it’s on this slope and not on that one? You have to do both. You have to protect a tree in its ecosystem, but also in a place like this. This is our heritage. And because it was developed here, it is our duty to do something with it. That’s why I’ve worked so long on the problem of who is allowed to use it. That was in my previous job with the United Nations. It’s sad to see that what is called the apple collection in Khazakhstan doesn’t in fact exist.

[Louise climbs a tree.]

It’s an interesting variety, but again, if you don’t know where it’s from…

[Louise explores.]

I walked on, because I thought I saw a sign. Because that saddens me, too: soon, no one will know where this tree came from. Where was it taken from? Was it raised from seed? It’s not grafted. If you don’t know where a tree is from, and there is no record of its yield, or what happened to the seed, it’s useless. If you don’t document things, you’ve got nothing. I can see there are trees, but if you don’t know what you’ve got… They have nothing to share or exchange with researchers elsewhere. It’s truly hopeless. Very sad. Very sad, yes. It would make Vavilov turn in his grave, the poor man.

Oxford, England. In the apple orchard of Barrie Juniper, fellow emeritus St. Catherine’s College, walking toward a young apple tree.

Barrie: Now this. There are many famous trees here, but this, I think, is particularly important. Because this doesn’t have a name. It comes direct from Khazakhstan. A friend of mine who runs a nursery there up in Norwich brought back a handful of seed and fruit, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Streng verboten! But he got six trees to grow in his nursery and he gave me one, and it turns out to be the best of them, really.
Louise: Where exactly in Khazakhstan did he get it?
Barrie: I don’t know exactly, but right over near the Chinese border. And it is really a very, very nice apple. But people cannot quite believe in Western Europe that you can go, as would you know, you can go into those mountains and you can pick apples.
Louise: Yes, to pick apples that are so similar to the ones we are eating now today.
Barrie: Look, what is different between that and these cultivated apples here? There is no difference at all. This has no name, and you’ll notice it is not grafted. It’s growing on its own feet. All the other trees there, you see those thick grafts, whatever they may be.
Louise: So can we have a look at the others? Which one is your favourite one?
Barrie: I suppose, well… There are two. Now look. I suppose this has to be Oxford’s apple, doesn’t it?
Louise: Yes.
Barrie: That has to be Oxford’s apple. That is the Blenheim Orange, from the palace.

Louise: The famous Blenheim Orange. You know what, if you give me the basket, then I put the apples in with our collection, then I give you the saw and I take the apples.
Barrie: When those apples came up, European people knew about wheat and beans, and they knew about peas, and they knew about oats and barley. All those things, you had to do a lot of things to them. You had to take the skins off, or you had to grind them, or you had to cook them, or you had to mix them with yeast or whatever it was. You go to an apple tree, pick one off, you eat it.

[At a different tree]

That grows very well with me. That’s Holstein.
Louise: You got it from Germany?
Barrie: From Germany, from Holstein.

[A bit further]

This is Shakespeare’s favourite apple.
Louise: Really? How interesting. How do you know this is Shakespeare’s?
Barrie: In one of the parts of Henry IV part II, one of his servants says “Bring me a dish of leathercoats!”
Louise: So this is the Leathercoat?
Barrie: You can see why they are called Leathercoat.
Louise: Indeed, yes, now I understand. I never knew this, but it’s because of its thick skin.
Barrie: It’s got a thick, tough skin.
Louise: Why is it important for people to understand about variety?
Barrie: If you’ve got variety, you’ve got strength. If you’ve got one variety, you are in danger. Because a fungus, a virus, a bacterium, if it can attack that one variety, then you’re finished.
Louise: The trouble is of course, that many of those apples, with those nice characteristics, are difficult to grow. They’re difficult to harvest. It requires a lot of labour.
Barrie: Yes.
Louise: how do we deal with that?
Barrie: People must, I think, I would love the idea of a street orchard, in which every house in a street has a different growth. Somebody had an early cooker, somebody a late cooker, somebody a dessert.
Louise: So an apple tree in front of every house? Barrie: Or in the back, I don’t mind. But running throughout the season.
Louise: That’s a nice idea.
Barrie: Very easy thing to do.
Louise: And you don’t do any pruning at all?
Barrie: I cut out dead wood, that’s all.
Louise: Yes, of course. This is nearly like a Khazakh forest! – Oops, my basket is getting caught. Look, we wen’t through your orchard and we’ve got all this variety.
Barrie: There’s a Beefing.
Louise: Another Beefing. I put it next to this one, this is a small Beefing. But look at our basket, it’s fantastic. Just a few minutes, and you get all this variety. Fantastic.

Brogdale Farm, England

Joan Morgan, apple expert: The apple is the fruit of England. It became the fruit of England. Well, I suppose it always was the fruit of England, because apples are a hardened tree, so it will grow all over Britain. There is almost no county where there isn’t an apple type that will grow there. Every county has its specialities.

But it became really some sort of national fruit, I guess, when the modern fruit industry came into being at the end of the nineteenth century. Because England’s homegrown fruits were battleing against import. Particularty large waves of import, coming not only from the continent, but also from America, which was just starting to grow apples on a large scale. And the British people kind of felt their apple was under threat. They had to do something about it. And they launched a fruit crusade, to oust the Yankees and reinstate the English apple. It was really then that English people came to hold it in their hearts in a special place. And that is when Cox’s Orange Pippin began its climb to fame, when Bramley’s Seeding began its climb to fame, when they were widely planted. And it has kind of always been like that ever since.

[Browsing through an apple catalogue.]

Louise: Why is diversity so important? Firstly, because the genetic meterial contains different characteristics for every living being. One tree is more fungus-resistaint than another. One tree deals better with diseases or drought than another.

To sustain that biodiversity is important for finding qualities that can help us to improve crops. So that we can get better, stabler, healthier varieties and so that we can sustain a worldwide food supply in the future.

[Exploring the apple farm.]

Louise: I’ve never seen this. I wonder – it’s such a strong bunch.
Joan: That’s the joy of the collection, collecting has been going on here since 1922. So you have, for all this time, people have been sending their local apples into the collection. It’s pretty, isn’t it?
Louise: Why have the British been socreative in using their apples? What is so special about it?
Joan: Goodness me, I don’t know. The British, for a very long time, have been very interested in puddings and sweet dishes. Because the British like things sweet. I mean, the whole notion of fruit sweetmeats, the enormous spectrum of fruit sweetmeats, which achieved a very high level in Britain, because of the colonial involvement.
Louise: And because you had access to sugar.
Joan: That’s right. Not only access to sugar with our own caribbean sugar islands, but much of the british wealth back in England derived from the West Indian plantations.
Louise: So which one is the best one?
Joan: Impossible.
Louise: They’re all nice?
Joan: They’re all nice. You know, it depends upon the season, upon the time of year…
Louise: This one looks incredible.
Joan: We’ll have to see what that’s called. The name of the variety is on the other side, on the breeding tree. This is Ida Gold, an American variety.
Louise: You also have a tradition of having apples in a baked form, and of having very different varieties and selection procedures. Tell me something about that.
Joan: In the early 1800s, they actually distinguished in the terminology between apples for cooking, apples for the kitchen, which were called culinary, and apples for the dining table, which were called dessert. In those days, and particularly during the Victorian period, the term dessert referred specifically to the finale of fresh fruit, that came right at the end of a formal dinner. That is after the puddings, then you have this glorious selection.
Louise: The famous extension of the Victorian dinner.
Joan: Yes. The culinary variety, for the kitchens, then became a whole very large group of its own. There are hundreds of culinary varieties. This collection is subdivided basically into culinary and dessert. We are now in front of culinary.
Louise: So in contrast to mainland Europe you had no dual purpose apples, or very few.
Joan: There were dual purpose apples, yes. And I think continental people would probably say that a a number of our culinary apples are perfectly acceptable as eating apples. But basically there’s a spectrum of qualities in culinary apples, just as there’s a spectrum of quality in fresh eating apples.

[Walking around]

Joan: Byford Wonder, that’s a glorious cooking apple. Louise: Fantastic, look at the size.
Joan: Lord Derby, this is a famous variety.
Louise: Where is it from?
Joan: Lancashire. In order to cook, you need them to be sharp. Because, by and large, eating apples, apples that are nice for eating, when you cook them, they keep their shape. There aren’t many recipes in England that want the apple to maintain its shape.
Louise: What about apple pie? You’re supposed to be the inventors of apple pie.
Joan: Whereas I think there are a few other claims to that, but interestinly, in the US, they require apples to keep their shape. So they can go stab ‘em with a fork. We don’t want that. We want the apples to kind of melt away. The Americans don’t have this tradition for using culinary apples. Heaven forfend, they’d use something like Red Delicious in a pie, you know – [facepalms].
Louise: Good heavens, that’s a sin.

[A bit further]

Joan: This one, this one is worth the walk. Look, another lovely big one.
Louise: Super. So how do you compare in terms of taste and cooking qualities?
Joan: We may be ale to detect this, I’m not sure, but Byford Wonder has quite a characteristic taste of its own, sharp, savoury. Just a lovely cooking apple.
Louise: How many do we have?
Joan: Quite a lot.

[In the kitchen, sorting apples. Cutting to a Louise and Joan having tea outside. Baked apples are served.]

Joan: Splendid.
Louise: Which one would you like to try?
Joan: Let’s try a Golden Noble here.
Louise: Alright, here you go. [Serves both of them a piece.] Let me give you some cream.
Joan: No, no, no – just the apple.
Louise: It smells good. Mmm. [Tastes.] That’s how it should taste!
Joan: Absolutely how it should be.
Louise: It’s fantastic.
Joan: I was just kind of thinking, we can imagine the Victorian gentlemen sitting down and contemplating: “Hmm. Tonight, it’s Lord Derby.”
Louise: It’s lovely.

[They continue to eat baked apples during the end titles.]

stem: louise o. fresco
perspectief: Eating is our most intimate way of interacting with nature. Nature is what we eat. […] For people from the steppes, every tree is firewood. And apple trees are good firewood.
titel: HVMAN presents, Fresco’s paradise part 2, The Apple’s Journey
bron: wageningen university & research (2015, transcript: cb)
mopw: meerstemmige encyclopedie / appel