The apple crunchers


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The river Saône at Monthureux-sur-Saône. Just a few miles upstream it becomes  navigable and begins to morph into one of the grandest in France, flowing eventually into the Rhône. Very peaceful on a Sunday morning, but it’s all go behind the scenes. This is the town that hosts the annual bourse aux greffons for the Croqueurs de Pommes des Trois Provinces on the first Sunday of February each year.

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When someone first told me about the Croqueurs, I thought they were teasing (the pulling of legs is not a pursuit reserved to the English). But it’s official, there really is a national group calling itself the ‘apple crunchers’. They don’t just crunch apples, they are also partial to pears, plums, peaches – in fact any heritage cultivar of any fruit, including nuts.

The heritage fruit trail in France leads you back through the centuries to become acquainted with characters better known in circumstances far from the fruit bowl or the kitchen. For example, what we call ‘greengage’ in English is actually an old French variety called ‘Reine Claude Verte’, named for the wife of Francis I. Anne Boleyn served in Claude’s retinue before returning to her infamous fate, and is believed to have translated for Claude whenever English visitors were presented.

I actually succeeded in grafting ‘Reine Claude Verte’ and her plummier sister, ‘Reine Claude Violette’ last year. Quite a triumph for me. Grafting is really a skill I should leave to my more dexterous better half. He’s good at that kind of thing, I’m not. But I caught the bug at this same February bourse aux greffons in 2013.

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I had already noted how remarkably expensive fruit trees were in France and I wanted quite a few. I wandered into the bourse that February day in 2013 actually imagining that I might buy (cheap) young trees (my French was much worse then).

I came out a member, and with a new friend in our village who went on to show me the practical ropes. That year I successfully grafted three ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ and one cherry ‘Napoleon’, with Pierre’s help. (I’m the only one around here that calls him Pierre, everyone else knows him as Albert … sad to think that of his two first names he was never allowed to choose the one he himself preferred … until he met me.)

By 2015 I was a little more confident at the bourse. I had – as is ‘correct’ (the French love that word) – ordered my rootstocks in advance and made a careful note of the kind of scions (the bit that’s grafted onto the rootstocks) I wanted.

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My rootstocks waiting for me at home

But it’s still a tricky, serious business choosing your scions, given that the choice is so wide at the bourse – there’s a real sense of information overload, unless you have done your homework regularly throughout the year. And the one thing I still haven’t learned is to get there before 10.30 am – all the scions of the best (locally special) cultivars are gone by that time, pinched by early-bird Croqueurs with more passion than I.Croqueurs 093

Since I wanted to learn more about the fruit cultivars of Lorraine (the region where I live) I also purchased the right volume in the series the Croqueurs publish about fruit cultivars throughout France. It was a bit disappointing to realise that only one of the cultivars I’ve chosen over the last three years – ‘Saint-Georges’ – is a variety typically grown in Lorraine. Shaming also, to think it was only chosen on a whim, rather than lovingly selected (as I’m sure everyone else does) for its exceptional cider-making prowess or excellence in the tarte aux pommes. Worse still – in my first year I was lured into trying to graft three English apples! But, as I’ve said, I was still a bit bewildered by the notion of the Croqueurs at that stage and hadn’t quite grasped the right end of the stick.

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By the time I arrived home again last Sunday, I was clutching scions for six apples (‘Gravenstein’, ‘Caville Blanc d’Hiver’, ‘Reinette Gris Comtoise, ‘St-Georges’, ‘Blenheim’, ‘Transparente de Croncels), two pears (Marguerite Marillat’, ‘Beurre Hardy’), four plums (‘Mirabelle de Nancy’, ‘Mirabelle de Trois Provinces’, ‘Coco Jaune’, ‘Bejonniere’) and two more cherries (‘Biggareau Burlat’, ‘Guine d’Annonay’). These little twigs lying on my kitchen don’t look much, but I’ve high hopes – and, let’s face it, they have such enticing names.

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And I’d had some good advice at the bourse. The first year I had a 100% ‘take’ on only four trees – the scions still looked nice and juicey by the time I introduced them to the rootstocks around 21 March (as long as the sap is rising it’s ok to get on with the job). The second year was not so hot. I think I chose about 14 scions and ended up with only 7 trees (still not bad when you think that membership of the society costs only 25€ per year, the rootstocks – reusable, if the initial graft fails – cost 1.50€, and the scions are free). I am sure, however, that a proper Croqueur would find this an embarrassing success rate.

I had been keeping the scions in the cellar in the 5-6 weeks following the bourse, plunged in damp potting compost. The first year I covered the tops with a plastic bag, but last year I was lazier. One of the Croqueurs told me on Sunday that the best thing was to wrap the scions in a damp cloth and then to put them in the coldest part of the fridge until the March graft. Done! Hopefully my scions will be plumper and less dry this year.

I’m grafting using the most basic carpentry (and no great skill!). All the trees are worked with the whip and tongue graft you can find on the link, courtesy of Cornell College of Agriculture & Life Sciences in the States.

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And here’s one I did (unsuccessfully) earlier. The rootstock is a St Julien (for plums, peaches or nectarines). It’s reusable (theoretically), but my amateurish attempt has left it in rather a mess. ‘Waste not, want not’ is the motto in this house, so I’ll still be using it. That doesn’t stop me being slightly worried about the eventual shape of the tree! At least it’s better than practising on dead bits of willow twig, as we used to do when I was first taught grafting.



This time – success! A ‘Reine des Reinettes’ apple grafted onto M109 rootstock. The first picture with the rubber tie (rather decayed after binding the graft since last March).

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And here, bandage removed – the patient lives! I’m actually quite proud of this one, bearing in mind that I would not have said my fingers work nimbly enough for this kind of work. (The bulge below the graft is not my responsibility … or is it?)

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To date I have succeeded with these apples: ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin, ‘Reine de Reinettes’, ‘Caville Rouge d’Hiver’ and ‘Transparente Blanche’ – this last a July ripening cultivar that keeps an incredibly short period, but is just luscious and juicy as a dessert apple. Pears are (kind of predictably): ‘William’s Bon Chrétien’ and ‘Doyenne du Comice’. The sole cherry and the two plums have already been mentioned.

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Male-dominated; women welcome

And do you know – I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m learning a new horticultural skill and something about France’s culture that might otherwise have passed me by. It’s a bit like that packet of seed that is so precious you are afraid to sow it: it isn’t going to germinate in the packet, is it? The only way you learn is by failing.

The only problem is that it could become a bit of an addiction.

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26 thoughts on “The apple crunchers

    1. Cathy Post author

      You can do it Matt – it’s easy. My friend Pierre just gives his grafted trees away because he has no space to grow them on. I’m going to be doing that soon too! Find out what does well in your own area, and start there. Maybe you can make your own tradition!

  1. Christina

    That is very interesting and a coincidence as on last week’s GQT they were singing the praises of grafting and suggesting that it wasn’t all that difficult to do (not so sure about that. Also interesting that it is the one gardening activity that the Italians seem very keen on. The ancient Romans were hugely successful with this method of propagation so it must have stayed in the psyche.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I sense that you are living in a non-gardening culture too. Most of what I do in this area of France is not respected as ‘real’ gardening. Grafting is not ‘easy’ – but if someone like me who finds it tricky can still get a 50% success rate, it’s worth it. I don’t seem to get the ‘smiley’ option on my site, but if I had it I’d be saying ‘have a go’ (only if you want to – I’ve seen how many plants you are already looking after!) Take care … and enjoy your gorgeous garden.

      1. Christina

        You are quite right, the area where I live is pretty much devoid of any gardening culture. Many people grow vegetables but that is it! When they see my garden they say it is like a botanic garden which is exactly what it isn’t ! The lack of gardening culture is why I enjoy and need blogging so much.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Glad you liked it. We are where we are, and nowhere is perfect – life in France has severe, really stressful problems. Just like anywhere else?

    1. Cathy Post author

      You are pretty talented, John – if you wanted to do it, you could!. I don’t have the space for all the trees I’m grafting. My friend Pierre just gives them away because he wants to perpetuate local varieties. It’s a weird kind of passion – I’m getting hooked tooo.

  2. bittster

    What an interesting post, you’re luck to have found a group like this and I suspect you will quickly fill your garden with dozens of delicious fruits!
    Congrats on the grafting. I tried it once years ago after seeing a television clip but was very unsuccessful. You’ve inspired me to give it another go!

      1. bittster

        Hmmmm. Interesting concept to only get plants which I need. I should try it some time, but not now… Spring is too exciting!
        Also Espaliers take next to no space whatsoever. Might as well learn that trick as well 🙂

      2. Cathy Post author

        I understand. If only I could just acquire plants I need. But I do think twice about trees. Re espaliers: just planted out three of the apples and, following guidelines, they seemed to take an enormous amount of space. My garden is starting to seem small (which is why I resorted to espaliered fruit trees in the first place!)

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