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The Quest to Save the Pink Apples of Italy

Submitted by on August 1, 2022 – 12:29 amNo Comment

Pink apples of ItalyBy Agostino Petroni
Afar.com

On a warm April day, with poplar pollen cruising through the air like snowflakes in midwinter, Graziella Traini welcomed me to her farm in Montedinove, in the heart of Marche, a hilly region half the size of Tuscany, in central Italy. All around, towns and farmhouses stood on hilltops like meerkats scanning the horizon; as far as I could see, man-made structures blended with forests and sunflower fields, with winding roads drawing gentle lines in the landscape. Traini offered me a glass of water on the terrace of her stone house and pointed to small blossoming trees a few hundred meters away. There. At 67, the farmer is one of the few people who still cultivate the pink apple of the Sibillini mountains.

Wearing pink-gray glasses and a broad smile, Traini led me to her barn, trailed by her white cat and her husband’s stare, chatting all the while. Cheerful for the visit, she said she inherited the fields from her father—himself a farmer—and proudly told me that she’d been driving a tractor since she was 15.

Wooden cartons, tires, and tanks framed the walls of the deposit. In the center of the room sat plastic crates, conserving the few thousands pink apples left from last year’s harvest. Sizes varied from ping-pong balls to ripened oranges, the apples a mix of green and yellow touched by shades of pink and red. Anything but uniform, a bit wrinkled and shrunken, they came in semblance and shades that might be defined as “ugly”—some carried the form of a deflating mini balloon, while others wore brown scars. But after being harvested in October 2021, and after six months of resting in the open air, they were also something else: in their prime, perfect for a midmorning snack.

“They hate the fridge,” Traini said, plucking a tiny fruit for me to try, adding that, while these apples can be eaten right off the tree, the fruit ages and improves in flavor over the months. (According to Traini, if a pink apple is rotten in a basket, its thick and resistant skin prevents it from infecting its neighbors—so much for the 14th-century Latin proverb, “a rotten apple spoils the barrel.”)

I accepted the apple, its skin slightly sticky. I polished it on my pants and took a bite. An intense aromatic perfume hit my nose, and I was surprised by the apple’s sharp crunch, so many months after being harvested. It was sweet, tart, and delicious. I took one more.

Three decades ago, finding such an apple would have been nearly impossible. Once a staple food and source of vitamins during winter for the communities of this hilly territory, for decades, the pink apple had all but vanished. But then, Traini said, poof: “It exploded, and now everybody wants this apple.”

Every year, Italy produces about 2 million tons of apples, ranking sixth in world production, with a majority of the fruits harvested in the northern part of the country. But it’s within the Sibillini hills, part of the Apennines—the mountain chain traveling along the Italian peninsula as if it were its spine—that the pink apples have found a suitable habitat to thrive.

The fruit trees survive between 400 and 1,000 meters of altitude of the Sibillini mountains, a fit for the area’s cold winters. The pink apple’s thicker skin—compared to more familiar types like Fuji or Red Delicious—protects it from easy infection and rot, and the plants need little tending, making them easy to grow them organically.

pink apples of Italy

The pink apple’s history goes back at least to Ancient Rome. In 65 B.C.E., Quinto Orazio Flacco, a leading Roman poet, mentioned in his satires the taste of the local apples: “In terms of flavor, the apples of Tivoli are inferior to those of the Piceno, which however make a better impression.”

“They were nothing less than our pink apples, which have not been genetically manipulated throughout the centuries,” Nelson Gentili, a 62-year-old agronomist from Comunanza and pillar man behind the pink apple revival, told me delightedly. Gentili pointed out that the pink apple also made cameos in Bartolomeo Bimbi’s 17th-century paintings and numerous books from the 1900s, lauded for their flavor and bite.

Marche is one of the few places in the world where you can get these apples, and for centuries, most families in the area had a few pink apple trees for personal use. But during the 1960s and ’70s, Italy witnessed a great internal migration: Farmers left remote and mountainous areas for industrial cities that promised a better life; destructive earthquakes accelerated the move from mountain towns to coastal cities. As a result, small-scale agriculture began shrinking—fields were abandoned and towns lost life. The migration process didn’t spare the 225 hamlets and cities of Marche, many of which count a few hundred inhabitants.

“There were no more pink apple producers,” Gentili said. What was left, instead, were a handful of 70- to 80-year-old pink apple trees scattered around the territory.

Pio Geminiani, a 60-year-old farmer from Force, showed me an older pink apple tree on his neighbor’s land. The freshly plowed land had wild boar tracks, and a tall wild apple tree stood alone, guarding the hill’s edge.

“This tree survived only because it stood on the field’s border,” Geminiani said, pointing at the tree. Because of their lower production and scarce commercial value, the pink apple trees were uprooted to give space to modern tractors to plow the land and cultivate more remunerative crops like wheat and sunflowers.

But it was from trees like these that, in 1994, the Mountain Union of the Sibillini mountains, a public entity that safeguards and helps develop the territory, grew new pink apple plants to give to 10 interested farmers.

Gentili, who worked for the union, helped convince farmers like Geminiani and Traini to give the ancient apple a second chance. The agronomist understood the legacy of the apple trees and became invested in trying to save them. Traini, curious about a fruit that had been part of her family for generations, planted 416 trees on the south-facing, one-hectare slope of the farm in 1994. But she didn’t have high hopes: seeing the fruit’s decline in popularity, she expected that she would keep the apple trees for personal use or, most likely, for firewood.

The recovery process for the pink apple wasn’t easy: The plants grew slowly, mimicking the healing phase of a region injured by many cuts. But after a few years, more and more farmers began harvesting and selling pink apples. Their quest sparked the interest of Slow Food, an organization that promotes local food and traditional cooking; in 2000, it added the apples to Ark of Taste, a catalog of endangered foods that sprang to life in 1996. Today the Ark of Taste helps to safeguard 5,716 products in 150 countries. (Anybody can signal an endangered product, and each product goes through rigorous vetting by experts and researchers before making it onto the list.)

“The goal is to give dignity to traditional knowledge that had been ignored by academia for a long time,” said Dauro Zocchi, the 31-year-old researcher at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in charge of studying and further developing the scientific approach behind the Ark of Taste.

For a product to be included in the Ark of Taste is like getting an energy booster. It’s a starting point to a structured revival. Slow Food gets involved with its local capillary networks, and researchers help the producing community with strategies to create a sustainable and direct supply chain to bring back the product to the market. Today, thanks to this work, there are about 80 acres of cultivated pink apple trees, compared to none in the early 1990s.

Back in Force, Gemignani, the apple farmer, showed me his now-15-year-old trees, full of white flowers surrounded by buzzing bees, and said that his pink apples command a higher price compared to other apples. He mainly sells his organic apples at 2 to 3 euros a kilo directly on the farm to people who visit, or to Coop, an alliance of cooperatives that distributes the apples in their supermarkets on the eastern Italian coast.

“[The pink apple] contributed to the discovery of our mountain areas,” Gemignani told me confidently. According to him, it is the very best sort of chain effect: More and more tourists seek these apples, and while searching for the fruit they visit towns and forests, and dine in local restaurants. But the hope has been tenuous. After an hour of apple talks, as we walked back toward his car, he showed me his family’s farmhouse. It was cracked in 2016 by the 4.7- magnitude earthquake that killed 298 people and caused 23 billion euros of damage in central Italy. He shrugged, dejected, hinting at the delayed and mostly absent governmental help to reconstruct. Gemignani was hardly the only one to speak of their frustration: All of the farmers I met said that while the local economy is picking up, it’s still struggling. Despite progress in bringing the pink apple back from obscurity, they fear things won’t ever really take off—in large part because of delayed state funds. Mostly, Gemignani said, they feel like they’re on their own.

I was not expecting what I found in Marche. The Sibillini mountains landscape, in many ways, is similar to the more notorious Alps but less touristy. Sharp cliffs rest on vast pastures interspersed with hiking trails and refuges for multiday walks. Sparkling green spring leaves covered forests and hills. In the distance, a blue Adriatic sea.

As I walked through the Gola dell’Infernaccio (“The Throat of Hell”), a gorge cutting through Sibillini mountains’ forests and lakes, Mark Fayers and Sarah Topps told me that in 2007, when they first came to Marche from England, the region bewitched them. The two owned a bar in York but decided to buy a plot of land with an old farmhouse in Amandola, a town of roughly 3,500 inhabitants located at the border of the Sibillini Mountains National Park. They moved to Italy and slowly refurbished the place. Today, the farmhouse is a calm bed-and-breakfast where I stayed for a night, hidden within lush woods, rightfully named “The Hideaway.”

“People know about Tuscany and Venice but don’t know about Marche, which is better,” Fayers said, citing Marche’s scenery, with rolling hills reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings’ Shire. Crucially, it hasn’t yet been shaped toward a tourist’s expectation of a place, he said.

The earthquake, then the COVID-19 pandemic, reduced the small flow of tourism to the region. Yet Fayers believes that pink apples keep pulling people to those lands—a lifeline for the local economy.

“They are real fighters,” Topps said, referring to Marchigiani, the people of Marche. “Somehow, they find a way to survive.”

As evidence of the mountain people’s spirit, the British couple recommended I visit 52-year-old Enrico Mazzaroni, a local chef with what they called a “flamboyant personality.” Tucked among stone houses in the hamlet of Isola San Biagio at 932 meters above sea level, Mazzaroni’s restaurant, Il Tiglio, is a magnet for those who love experiential food.

“We use [pink apples] everywhere,” said Mazzaroni, a native of Isola San Biagio, pointing at his old trees in the garden. Il Tiglio was damaged during the last earthquake, but after three years of renovations, he was finally able to reopen in early 2022. Mazzaroni handed me a warm bread cube with the texture of focaccia but with pieces of pink apples. It’s hardly his only use of the fruit, which he ferments, dries, and fries; he also cooks pink apples with rabbit and mussels and blends them for dessert.

When Mazzaroni was a child, his grandmother would sprinkle sugar on a pink apple and slowly cook it whole in the wood oven during winter nights. Today, its use throughout Il Tiglio’s menu is part versatility, part nostalgia, part pleasure. “Its perfume reminds me of that of a rose,” Mazzaroni told me.

In Ceresola is another pink apple stronghold, spearheaded by Mirela Ghimis-Dumitrescu, a 54-year-old cook. She moved to Italy 24 years ago from Romania for love and has cultivated 1,800 pink apple trees ever since. Like Mazzaroni, she uses the fruit in her restaurant Bio Agriturismo La Conca gratuitously: pasta with apples, bacon, and saffron; pork tenderloin with caramelized apple; apple cake; and apple ice cream. Many locals, she told me, come to her restaurant just to eat dishes with pink apples. “They come to relive their childhood memories,” she said, smiling, setting down a plate of vegetable tempura with sage, zucchini, peppers, and pumpkin flowers. On the side, she had neatly placed a handful of pink apple slices.

Today, there are roughly 20 registered producers of pink apples scattered around the Sibillini mountains territory, but Gentili, the agronomist, thinks that there might be many more that just aren’t part of the pink apples producers’ association. All in all, the total acreage of a few dozen hectares of pink apples is negligent compared to other crops like sunflowers, grapes, or wheat. But according to Gentili, the small production is having an effect on the territory. Besides selling apples, producers make cider, vinegar, jellies, and other derivative apple products. Every November, Montedinove organizes the annual pink apple fair, and the town mayor allegedly always carries a pink apple with him to institutional meetings. Perhaps most importantly, Gentili said, is that the fruit has attracted younger farmers and entrepreneurs.

Andrea Servili, a 38-year-old agronomist, returned to Comunanza five years ago after a period of study in New Zealand. He planted 500 pink apple trees using sprouts from a few old trees he had on his family farm to diversify his production of saffron, truffles, honey, and chile peppers.

And if the region incentivizes the cultivation of the pink apple and uses modern marketing strategies, Servili is hopeful that more youth will be attracted to the idea of opening farms: “If I can work in the open air and be in nature and get the same wage as I was working in construction, in a factory, or doing night shifts, why not?”

As I drove back to Rome through Via Salaria, turning curves through endless valleys, I thought about how such a small movement of apple producers is quietly helping revive this area of Marche. How there was a sort of quiet hope. Along the road, empty houses were held together with steel bracelets, or half-collapsed, showing their bowels, filling the space with silence.

I stopped for a moment beside an open field, right below the snowy peaks of the mountain chain, and took a bite of one of the apples Graziella Traini had gifted me. This one was riper, sweeter than the one I had tasted at the farmhouse. A group of bikers passed, their motorcycles roaring, the only sound for miles. I finished the fruit and looked up around me, surrounded by an ocean of waving trees.

I was not expecting what I found in Marche. The Sibillini mountains landscape, in many ways, is similar to the more notorious Alps but less touristy. Sharp cliffs rest on vast pastures interspersed with hiking trails and refuges for multiday walks. Sparkling green spring leaves covered forests and hills. In the distance, a blue Adriatic sea.

As I walked through the Gola dell’Infernaccio (“The Throat of Hell”), a gorge cutting through Sibillini mountains’ forests and lakes, Mark Fayers and Sarah Topps told me that in 2007, when they first came to Marche from England, the region bewitched them. The two owned a bar in York but decided to buy a plot of land with an old farmhouse in Amandola, a town of roughly 3,500 inhabitants located at the border of the Sibillini Mountains National Park. They moved to Italy and slowly refurbished the place. Today, the farmhouse is a calm bed-and-breakfast where I stayed for a night, hidden within lush woods, rightfully named “The Hideaway.”

“People know about Tuscany and Venice but don’t know about Marche, which is better,” Fayers said, citing Marche’s scenery, with rolling hills reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings’ Shire. Crucially, it hasn’t yet been shaped toward a tourist’s expectation of a place, he said.

The earthquake, then the COVID-19 pandemic, reduced the small flow of tourism to the region. Yet Fayers believes that pink apples keep pulling people to those lands—a lifeline for the local economy.

“They are real fighters,” Topps said, referring to Marchigiani, the people of Marche. “Somehow, they find a way to survive.”

As evidence of the mountain people’s spirit, the British couple recommended I visit 52-year-old Enrico Mazzaroni, a local chef with what they called a “flamboyant personality.” Tucked among stone houses in the hamlet of Isola San Biagio at 932 meters above sea level, Mazzaroni’s restaurant, Il Tiglio, is a magnet for those who love experiential food.

“We use [pink apples] everywhere,” said Mazzaroni, a native of Isola San Biagio, pointing at his old trees in the garden. Il Tiglio was damaged during the last earthquake, but after three years of renovations, he was finally able to reopen in early 2022. Mazzaroni handed me a warm bread cube with the texture of focaccia but with pieces of pink apples. It’s hardly his only use of the fruit, which he ferments, dries, and fries; he also cooks pink apples with rabbit and mussels and blends them for dessert.

When Mazzaroni was a child, his grandmother would sprinkle sugar on a pink apple and slowly cook it whole in the wood oven during winter nights. Today, its use throughout Il Tiglio’s menu is part versatility, part nostalgia, part pleasure. “Its perfume reminds me of that of a rose,” Mazzaroni told me.

In Ceresola is another pink apple stronghold, spearheaded by Mirela Ghimis-Dumitrescu, a 54-year-old cook. She moved to Italy 24 years ago from Romania for love and has cultivated 1,800 pink apple trees ever since. Like Mazzaroni, she uses the fruit in her restaurant Bio Agriturismo La Conca gratuitously: pasta with apples, bacon, and saffron; pork tenderloin with caramelized apple; apple cake; and apple ice cream. Many locals, she told me, come to her restaurant just to eat dishes with pink apples. “They come to relive their childhood memories,” she said, smiling, setting down a plate of vegetable tempura with sage, zucchini, peppers, and pumpkin flowers. On the side, she had neatly placed a handful of pink apple slices.

Today, there are roughly 20 registered producers of pink apples scattered around the Sibillini mountains territory, but Gentili, the agronomist, thinks that there might be many more that just aren’t part of the pink apples producers’ association. All in all, the total acreage of a few dozen hectares of pink apples is negligent compared to other crops like sunflowers, grapes, or wheat. But according to Gentili, the small production is having an effect on the territory. Besides selling apples, producers make cider, vinegar, jellies, and other derivative apple products. Every November, Montedinove organizes the annual pink apple fair, and the town mayor allegedly always carries a pink apple with him to institutional meetings. Perhaps most importantly, Gentili said, is that the fruit has attracted younger farmers and entrepreneurs.

Andrea Servili, a 38-year-old agronomist, returned to Comunanza five years ago after a period of study in New Zealand. He planted 500 pink apple trees using sprouts from a few old trees he had on his family farm to diversify his production of saffron, truffles, honey, and chile peppers.

And if the region incentivizes the cultivation of the pink apple and uses modern marketing strategies, Servili is hopeful that more youth will be attracted to the idea of opening farms: “If I can work in the open air and be in nature and get the same wage as I was working in construction, in a factory, or doing night shifts, why not?”

As I drove back to Rome through Via Salaria, turning curves through endless valleys, I thought about how such a small movement of apple producers is quietly helping revive this area of Marche. How there was a sort of quiet hope. Along the road, empty houses were held together with steel bracelets, or half-collapsed, showing their bowels, filling the space with silence.

I stopped for a moment beside an open field, right below the snowy peaks of the mountain chain, and took a bite of one of the apples Graziella Traini had gifted me. This one was riper, sweeter than the one I had tasted at the farmhouse. A group of bikers passed, their motorcycles roaring, the only sound for miles. I finished the fruit and looked up around me, surrounded by an ocean of waving trees.

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