“Out of such chaos comes the dancing star” said my favorite dystopian curmudgeon Neitzche, who may have come from farming blood for all I know. His obsessions with hardship and trial as paths to enlightenment, just like Homeric and eastern mythology, are very much in the spirit of agriculture.
And if agriculture has a Grail–an odyssey of tribulation and effort–it’s organic fruit.
Fruit is the hardest thing we grow. When cultivating organic fruit, from pomme (apple, pear, quince) and stone (plum, cherry) to thorny brambles, it’s us against insects, fungi, birds, squirrels, chipmunks and the rest of ravenous creation. Even the chickens went on a bender this week when a few cherries dropped to the orchard floor while we were harvesting.
Fruit is desire; it’s forbidden biblical temptation (we might still be living in sinless oblivion had Eve handed Adam a fistful of kale.) And while most fruit is sweet, tempting our evolutionary desire for sugar, I’m in love with sour: The sharp, lip-puckering sour of ripe currants or gooseberries, or the tang of tart cherries; blood-red and swollen, with stone-hard pits that must be spat. Maybe they just seem edgier, and a less obvious choice, given the physiology of taste.
Humans can sense five tastes: sour, salty, bitter, sweet and umami (sot sauce-like fermented-ness), and sweet has been something we’ve done way too well for too long and are paying the price in an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. We’ve been sugar bombed and beaten into a neophobic lull by agri-business for decades, and it’s time for sour to have its moment.
Look at the growing popularity of the sour and bitter taste spectrum, from kombucha and hoppy beer to pickling just about everything, and it seems sour is making strides. Our bodies will thank us: Acids from sour fruit are crucial, since humans must get ascorbic acid from their diet (unlike most mammals, who can make their own) and if we don’t eat it, we’ll die of scurvy.
So what is it about tartness? Is it just that it’s an anti-venum to the corn-sweetened everything of our culture? “Sour foods are growing because of what they aren’t: Sweet,” says Mark Garrison in the on-line magazine Slate. “With public health officials in open warfare with soda and corn syrup, the opposite of their flavor profile sounds an awful lot safer to many consumers.”
Stonegate has been going sour since its inception, with black and red currants, sour cherries, gooseberries, and chokeberries (as in “choking on insane bitterness”). Cultivating fruit is what drew me to farming in the first place, and an affinity for the work nineteenth century cultural stylist Andrew Jackson Downing and his ideas on both fruit cultivation and rural architecture. An orchard heavy with organic fruit seemed as close to the vault of agricultural nirvana as I could get.
I think Downing would have liked it here, even the way I first found it. The wonderful gothic-ness of the place–clambered over by bindweed, wild grape and lilac, with the lovely bones barely poking through a skin a neglect: Stonegate in the raw, abandoned to time and indifference.
Downing would have seen the potential, particularly now, with the orchard in its fullness, radiant and heavy with the sweet and sour glimmer of fruit, like Neitzches’s dancing stars, lighting up the farm.
Photography by Matthew Benson Foto