In Lisbon, Isabel Soares started a cooperative called Fruta Feia, or Ugly Fruit, a response to the European Union’s restrictions on the appearance of food. No curved cucumbers, no odd-shaped tomatoes. Soares and her colleagues buy these ‘seconds’ from local farms and sell them much less expensively to members of their co-op. She estimates that one third of the food grown in Portugal is wasted because of both market and consumer standards. She wants to change this.
Some young people in Germany have another approach to ‘Ugly Fruit.’ They, too, want to counter the wastefulness of food, but they see ‘ugly’ food as a business opportunity. They want to open stores that specialize in ugly fruit, selling it at a premium. They plan to fill their shelves with odd-shaped potatoes, tomatoes with little penises, and two-legged carrots, oddities that are actually quite common.
My sweetheart, Blase, grows potatoes here at the farm. Quite often he digs up heart-shaped ones. We keep them on the windowsill in the kitchen unless we give them away as gifts. The following spring, Blase plants any that are left. Occasionally, he grows carrots with two twining legs or a tomato with a penis. We appreciate these oddities, but don't charge more for them.
With apples it’s a different story. Ugly apples are the ones with fungal diseases, or suffering from some pest attack — and no one wants these apples. We don’t have too many ugly apples, but we do have plenty of fruit with small blemishes. I encourage our pickers to appreciate this fruit because it is healthier and more nutritious than the perfect apples in the supermarket.
In Japan the opposite is true. The Japanese have perfected growing 'perfect' apples. Sold in elaborate gift boxes and purchased for special occasions like a birthday, promotion, or graduation, these apples can sell for a hundred and fifty dollars.
The Japanese farmers select the strongest blossoms, and once they are pollinated, enclose each of these flowers in its own double bag. The bag is folded in such a way as to allow for the growth of the fruit, but closed tightly with a wire to keep out insects. The fruit grows for the next several months hidden away from the sun and pests like Rapunzel in the witch’s tower. After three months, the outer bag is removed leaving a colored wax paper one. This colored bag is left on for the next two to ten days so that the apple will color. The last step is to remove all the paper and give the apple time in the sun to finish its coloring and encourage the accumulation of sugars. This is also when the orchardist will apply a stencil to the fruit. Something like, “Happy New Year, Sensei!”, or “Congratulations, Yuki!”
I first came across the phenomenon of fruit stenciling in our orchard when I noticed a leaf stuck to an apple. As I peeled the leaf off the fruit, there was an exact copy of the leaf stenciled onto the apple. Talking about this phenomenon with our resident poet at Old Frog Pond Farm, Susan Richmond, we decided that we will try to stencil words on some apples for next fall. I don’t know what words she has mind, but one of my words will be, Vita, for my granddaughter who will be 15 months at harvest this year.
Over a century ago, the fruit growers in Montreuil outside of Paris, wanting to distinguish their fruit, developed a technique of stenciling images using egg whites and snail slime. At the 1894 St Petersburg Exposition, the French showed off these apples, including a famous one featuring a portrait of the Tsar of Russia.
If you have a suggestion for something we might stencil on an apple, let us know. We haven’t yet figured out our technique, but I imagine we will cut stencils out of some kind of waterproof tape. Still, snail slime is used in fancy French face creams; maybe there’s something to it — and it would be organic.