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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?)
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.
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.