Many of us are failing to make the most from our gardens. We would never plant a bed of onions or a row of potatoes, get a good crop and then not lift them would we? A major difference between tree or top fruit culture and vegetable growing is that the size of the fruit harvest comes pretty much of it’s own choosing and is not easily altered by us. We cannot intentionally grow much more of most perennial fruits one year or less in another as we can with annual crops such as potatoes or onions. We have to accept pretty much what the plants give us. Probably the greatest factors changing fruit yields are rainfall and frost, indeed many crops disappear entirely after a hard late frost. So in the short run, the current year, all we can do is water and feed to increase yields by a bit, or thin brutally to reduce the numbers wholesale. Given more time we can remove trees, or plant and bring more into cropping. However most top fruits still come in relatively large units that annually produce a surplus. Even the hard pruned most dwarfing stocked cordon, once established, produce more apples or pears than most of us can comfortably eat. Bushes, fans, and espaliers crop more heavily than cordons and full sized trees a shed load. Plums especially, which are harder to dwarf, produce still bigger trees and correspondingly larger surpluses.
Thus most fruit trees inherently crop hugely yet all too often we seem unprepared for this bounty which is then let go to waste. A small proportion of autumn’s fruits may be eaten, stored or processed but generally too much valuable fruit is allowed to rot for the birds when it has terrific value - and comes almost work free just for the picking. All over the country, towns as well, I see good fruit let spoil. If this were collected and processed it could feed us- and still feed the birds. It is the fruit pulp we enjoy and this is invariably ignored by the birds who are after the seeds as these are packed with minerals, fats and proteins while the pulp is but sweet pap. Once we have taken our bit the pips can be dried, stored and put on the bird table throughout winter when they will do most good.
Now only a small proportion of fruits can be stored for any length of time. The variety is the most important factor, earlies rarely keep at all well, lates are often designed for storage. Then quality is crucial as any bruise or damage, even just the loss of the little stalk or pedicel, will reduce the shelf life significantly. Windfalls are not worth considering!!! So only those fruits carefully picked should be put away, all the rest need processing in some way before they deteriorate. Each type of fruit can be processed in many ways but is more suited to one or other of the different treatments, and what you can consume. There is little point pickling all the plums if you don’t like a lot of pickles with your meals!
Apples are the fruit most widely wasted, in quantities that seem wicked. They can be dried. Wash, peel and core, then sliced in rings and hang on strings in a warm dry place until nearly brittle. The dried rings can be packed in jars and kept for years though are better used sooner than later. They can be reconstituted with water over night for use in compotes of mixed fruits, chewed as snacks or chopped and used in cakes and pastries. If the washed fruits are cleaned and trimmed of rots the clean peel and cores can be used to make puree, as can broken rings and off-cuts.
Good apples which won’t keep can be washed, cleaned and chopped, simmered down, sieved and made into puree which can be frozen or bottled for later. Apple puree is immensely useful as it can be used in pies and tarts, in pickles and chutneys and as a base for curries and sweet and sour sauces. Apple puree and other fruits make a range of jam like conserves similar to lemon curd. Thick and glutinous, full of flavour and easy to make.
But it’s also possible to squeeze the apples for their juice first and turn the remainder into a thick puree. On a large scale wine making equipment or on a smaller a kitchen processor will extract the juice, you can get about a gallon from each big bucket of apples. The juice is delicious, especially from cookers, and can be drunk now or frozen for later in plastic bottles, of course it can be fermented into cider. Which it will turn into in a week or so even if kept refrigerated. The juice can also be slowly simmered down to apple juice concentrate which can be used like maple syrup added to pickles and for sweetening bottled fruits and liqueurs.
If the thick puree from the cores and skins is too stolid it can be made thinner by just including more chopped apples, however the thicker purees are also very useful for leathering. Leathering is turning fruit purees into dried sheets that store for years. Apple puree is an excellent base but a bit bland and is given more flavour by mixing with other purees such as blackcurrant, strawberry, blackberry or plum. The drying concentrates the sugars, flavours and fruit acids making a very intense and tasty chewy snack. No extra sugar is needed but it can be added to no detriment. However here is a really good use for those jars of jam that never set very well. By mixing them with apple puree from the freezer and drying them to leather you get a tasty snack and free up space in the jam cupboard and the freezer. If you don’t dry the mixtures to leather but only till they set when cold then you have a fruit cheese, these are often delicious with cold meats or thickly spread on buttered toast.
Pears are even more prone to waste than apples. They are harder to pick just right to store, harder to ripen well as they need a warm humid place and they go over in a moment. Pears can be dried, the flesh becomes less pappy and more chewy than apple and eaten as a snack or included in cakes, often in place of raisins. Because of their shape they are usually washed, peeled, halved and the core and central string cut out leaving filleted halves to dry. The Asian pears such as the Nashi, or Kumoi, which look like a russet apple are really improved by drying as their dried rings are very very good. Pears can be pureed but this has a tendency to darken and blacken especially if frozen, this makes them harder to utilize than apples. Worse, they are harder to juice. If squeezed unripe they are not sweet, if overripe they have become toothpaste and it’s impossible to separate the pap from the juice. And worse still; most pears do not make a palatable perry whereas most apples make a fair cider. However pears have a unique facility- they can be reduced to juice by gentle heat. If pears, slightly under-ripe, ripe and even over-ripe as long as not rotten, are washed and chopped coarsely then simmered with almost no water overnight then they turn into a great quantity of sweet juice and some seedy skinny bits which can be sieved out. This juice can be drunk, or reduced further by gentle simmering until it turns into an even more maple like syrup than apple.
Now plums make the third fruit that is seen cropping prolifically to little use. They are very easy to halve, stone and dry and quickly turn into a range of dried plums. Which then continue to darken so if saved for long they all turn into prunes- in appearance and taste. Even so they are useful for adding to cakes, and of course plum puddings. They can be jammed of course, usually best done with a mixture of ripe and unripe fruit (to give a tartness). And a wider range of jams can be made by cooking some with their skins and others skinned as this alters the colour and flavour, and with stones and without for an almond overtone. The fruits can be frozen, whole but destoned (to avoid the almond overtone) or as a puree. They can also be mixed with apple puree to give plumple jams which resemble fruit cheeses in texture but are much sweeter. Plum and apple leather is one of the best uses for surplus plums and can use up quantities of either. Plums are hard to squeeze or juice tending to slurry but can be reduced to a thick juice with gentle heat though this is less useful than apple or pear. Plums can be fermented into wines though these tend to be hazy and have odd overtones- thus on the continent these are turned into brandies- a method not allowed to us in the lands of the free. However plums do make an excellent range of liqueurs if soaked in white rum or similar then sweetened with sugar syrup. And if you like sloe gin then try damson gin- it really is much much better.