Swabia is a region in southwestern Germany. It’s ‘capital’ Stuttgart is best known for companies like Bosch, Porsche and Mercedes. Swabians are known for their thriftiness, ingenuity and a certain idiosyncrasy which includes keeping shtum about how good their food is.
With the exception of a small area directly to the south of Stuttgart most agricultural is not very fertile. To the southwest rise the steep slopes of the Swabian Alps to a barren high plateau. With their church spires and half-timbered houses the villages and towns along the foot of the Swabian Alps are picturesque and idyllic. The landscape owes much of its charm to the tall gnarled fruit trees, some of them over a hundred years old. Farmers traditionally planted such meadow fruit trees, cider apples, perry pears, plums and cherries on tall root stock on their grazing land as an additional source of income and because the trees provide shade and shelter for sheep and occasionally some cattle.
Jörg Geiger was born in Schlat, a small town just 25 km southwest of Stuttgart. The local inn, ‘Gasthof Lamm’ has been run by the Geiger family since the 17th century. Jörg trained as chef and was just 23 when he took over the management of the restaurant. Local farmers brought their surplus fruit to the vaulted cellar underneath the inn where it was distilled into spirits. Meadow fruit have been a bit of an obsession for Geiger since his childhood. His favorite variety is the ‘Stuttgarter Gaishirtle’, the name reflects that it was apparently a young goat herder from Stuttgart who discovered this tiny, green pear variety. It has no shelf life but goes from rock hard to ‘the best pear you ever tasted to fermenting mess under the tree’ within days, says Geiger. Spirits do capture the unique qualities of meadow fruit, some are sweet and aromatic, some flavorful, sharp and full of tannin.
But not everyone enjoys high-proof drinks. Some of the old farmers still talked about locally produced ‘champagne’. The ‘Champagner Bratbirne’ pear was widely grown in Swabia in the 18th century because the local ruler loved the sparkling wine that could be made from it and had vast quantities served at his court. Jörg Geiger revived the tradition of producing a sparkling wine using the méthode champenoise: the sparkling wine made from the ‘Champagner Bratbirne’ pear today is on Slow Food International’s Ark of Taste produce list.
As a chef Geiger was keenly aware of the lack of a non alcoholic drink that would compliment a meal as a good wine can. Non alcoholic beverages usually are too sweet or too fizzy, and plain water does get a bit boring. Fruit juice produces a lot of flavor on the tongue, but it often lacks what sommeliers call ‘the nose’ and ‘the finish’. So he started to combine single variety heritage pear and apple juice, some of them harvested unripe to lower the sugar content while keeping the intensity of the flavors. To compliment, enhance, refine or deepen these flavors he started to add extracts from fresh herbs, flowers, leaves, grains or wood. Stored in huge steel tanks the mixtures are then slowly carbonized over a two day period to achieve the tiny bubbles that rise to the surface of a glass like a string of pearls. The result are non-alcoholic sparkling wines (based on apple and/or pear juice) that match any alcoholic version (based on grape juice) in fragrance, subtlety of flavors, bouquet and finish. Jörg Geiger has composed more than 30 such ‘Priseccos’. There is ‘unripe meadow-fruit apple with gooseberry and Douglas fir tips’, heritage apple with oak leaf or Jerusalem Artichoke, there is single variety ‘Bohnapfel’-apple with celeriac and sesame, seedling apple with parsley, combinations with cucumber, bell pepper, lad’s love, yarrow, beetroot, black currant twigs, jasmine, hawthorn and even roasted and ground oyster shells and sea salt. It sounds crazy but the resulting tastes are subtle, from fresh minty or grassy to blossomy, spicy or earthy. There are bitter, tannin notes and usually just a hint of sweetness. Not every dish will work well with a sparkling drink, which is why Geiger has created the ‘Inspiration’ line: based on fruit juice and infused with herbs, bark and leaves like a Prisecco – but non sparkling. He’s also started working with whey to add lactic acid fermentation, and that, he says, has opened a whole new world of flavours and possibilities.
Most of the herbs, blossoms and leaves Jörg Geiger uses come from the fruit tree meadows or woods nearby. He pays very good prices for single variety heritage fruit delivered to Manufaktur Geiger by more than 600 local farmers and small holders. Collecting or growing herbs and other plants also provides additional income. Over the past 20 years farmers cut down many of their meadow fruit trees because their fruit could not compete with the perfect looks of supermarket apples and pears. Now it makes economic sense again to look after the trees and maintain meadows and hedges. And with it, too, comes a sense of pride in the richness of tastes and variety this region can produce, the biodiversity and the beauty of these fruit meadows with those old, tall, magnificent trees.
Last year WiesenObst e.V. – the meadow fruit association – was founded with Slow Food Germany as one of the founding members. The aim is to place the fruit of those old tree giants firmly on to the map of producers, processors and consumers and make maintaining the trees and planting new ones a commercially viable option again for farmers and small growers, even if they may have just a couple of trees on a tiny plot. The association has come up with a definition of what distinguishes meadow fruit and meadow fruit trees from commercial orchards and modern, commercial varieties. In the long run WiesenObst e.V. is working to get EU PGI (protected geographical indication) status for the ‘meadow fruit’.
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.
Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent @M.Kunz
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