Looks can be deceiving… The apple looks small and shrivelled. It hasn’t grown straight and has some brown marks on it. Has it got a worm inside? You might be tempted to weed out the meagre fruit. But take a brave bite and its true character reveals itself. Its appearance means it would never make it onto a supermarket shelf. When you take a bite, you can enjoy a wonderfully sweet apple combined with a hearty acidity that lends the experience a refreshing additional note. This is how apples can taste.
This kind of taste revelation is nothing new for Martin Schaarschmidt; it’s the result of carefully looking after the landscape and nature. The young man takes part in an initiative to protect and preserve the orchards, scattered around the Odenwald. Many guests don’t understand the term “Streuobstwiesen”, which can be roughly translated as “meadows scattered with fruit trees”. “They’re not called ‘scattered orchards’ because the fruit lies scattered around the floor; it’s because the fruit trees are scattered around the meadow”, explains Schaarschmidt. The result is an idyllic landscape that gets right to the heart of nature lovers and walkers. Until the first half of the 20th century, the trees found in these orchards were the most cultivated fruit in Europe. However, modern growing methods and EU standards created forms of cultivation that drastically reduced the number of varieties. It’s a great shame – you could hardly imagine a more perfect natural environment than the one found in scattered orchards. By avoiding intensive farming and storey-like farming methods, the scattered orchards in the Odenwald provide the ideal habitat and living conditions for a wide variety of flora and fauna that are now struggling to find space to survive in the agricultural landscapes of Europe. The meadows and orchards are now home to rare plants, bees and bumble bees, tree frogs and bats, hoopoes and field mice.
However, these ecosystems remain vulnerable. All cultivated plants require human care and intervention. For Schaarschmidt and the 250 scattered orchard saviours in the Odenwald, it’s about caring for the old trees, growing seedlings through tree sponsorship programmes and educating those who own less well-kept meadows. Even long grass can lead to a significant decrease in the yield for typical types of scattered fruit. Thus, this maintenance and care includes mowing the meadow itself and introducing grazing stock to prevent scrub encroachment. But it’s also about saving rare fruit varieties from extinction. The scattered orchard saviours do this by cultivating varieties from dying apple trees to preserve their flavour.
It’s all about the taste: The question of when each variety is at its best is a science in itself in the Odenwald. After all, not all apples are perfectly ripe when they’re ready to be picked. Sometimes it’s better to leave the fruit a little while or gently shake the tree rather than picking the fruit. The fruit is not truly ripe until it falls from the tree.
It’s certainly worth the effort. Intact scattered fruit orchards don’t just provide an almost overwhelming variety of fruit; they also offer exquisite, sometimes totally unexpected experiences for the palate. You don’t need to explain this to experts like Dieter Walz. Born in the Odenwald, he has dedicated his precious fruit distillery in Seidenbuch to refining the region’s ancient varieties into alcoholic beverages. Walz’s spirits are nothing like the standard fruit spirits sold in supermarkets. It would be like comparing ready-made pizzas to food from a Michelin-star restaurant. The experienced distiller knows the rarest varieties have the most exciting tastes. The distillates made from apple varieties with exotic names like “Zuccalmaglios Renette”, “Goldparmäne” and “Karmijn de Sonnaville” promise extraordinary moments of pleasure. As soon as he hears the names, Walz immediately begins to gush about their flavours: “Zuccalmaglios Renette is tangy and juicy and has a very well-balanced sweetness and acidity. It’s a wonderful apple. And the Goldparmäne is without doubt the king of the apples; it’s ideal for scattered fruit orchards and a good source of pollen”. The passion that people like Schaarschmidt and Walz have for their region’s apples builds on long-standing traditions. Apples have always been treasured in the Odenwald. “I remember when the most popular varieties cost 30 marks for 50 kg. That was a lot of money back then”, explains Walz.
People are becoming more aware of the value of these apples. One example is the kitchen of Armin Treusch: Odenwald apples play a key role in his “Johanns Stube” restaurant in Reichelsheim. They’re used in his cider sauerkraut, in his homemade potato sausage, as an apple and onion vinaigrette with Odenwald free-range beef, and in the form of farmer’s chicken braised in cider and served with vegetables and apple pieces. Treusch is a proponent of “slow food” and sources all his ingredients from the local region: “We want to focus our business around Odenwald produce, and the apples are of paramount importance”, says Treusch, who launched the “Odenwald-Gasthaus” partnership with this in mind. The members work together to present the Odenwald as an authentic holiday destination with a close bond with nature. Business owners offer the perfect rural experience by providing personal recommendations for hiking tours. Their food is predominantly sourced from high-quality, regional produce.
Regional specialities are not just perfectly accompanied by fruit spirits, but also by the wide range of ciders, juices and sparkling wines. Treusch is certain that the secret to good wine is not technology, but rather passion and craftsmanship. The ciders’ unique character comes from pure, hand-picked apple varieties that are freshly harvested, pressed and fermented on site and contain the full flavour of the Odenwald. It’s no surprise that weary but content guests can often only manage a sigh of delight after enjoying such delicacies: “It’’s so lovely here that we should probably keep it secret”.