Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine

  • Maria Ann Smith’s gift to good eating can be added to the list of insufficiently recognised legacies of our pioneering women.

  • The Granny Smith apple is a good representative of the quality produce we started to grow and produce early in our culinary development. They are a main pillar to the highly reputed AussieCuisine.

  • Australia is a successful food-exporting nation, with our meat the most known and appreciated Australian produce. However, many fresh fruits exported from Down Under enrich the food in the northern hemisphere winter. The Granny Smith apple success was that it kept well, which made it readily transportable and it was exported in significant numbers after the First World War.

By Michael Symons

Maria Ann Smith died long before her apple came to prominence, so that much of her history is lost. However, the ‘Granny Smith’ who cultivated on the world’s most successful varieties was born with the surname of Sherwood at Peasmarsh, Sussex, in 1880. She married Thomas Smith from a nearby town, and the couple grew hops before setting off aboard the Lady Nugent, arriving in New South Wales in 1838. They and their five children eventually settled on land fronting the Great Northern Road in the Ryde district. With sons farming in the area and two daughters marrying local orchardists, she became by her late sixties widely known as ‘Granny’.

Her husband was an invalid, she took the produce of their small orchard to the city markets. One local story was that she brought back from the market some cases containing rotting Tasmanian apples, probably French crabs. She tipped them among the ferns beside her creek. A few years later – it was now probably 1868 – she discovered in place of the rubbish a seedling bearing a few fine apples. Grown from a seed, it was sport, and interesting. Among the visitors to whom she showed the apples were Mr E. H. Small and his 12-year old son (who recalled the story in 1924). Mr Small decided they made good cooking apples, even though Mobb’s Royal and others seemed to fill the need at the time. The boys found the green-skinned apples good for eating.

Another version (recorded in 1956 by her grandson, Benjamin Spurway) was that a fruit agent, Thomas Lawless, gave her the French crabs to test their cooking quality. Granny made apple pies, throwing the peelings and cores out of the kitchen window, and a seedling grew close to the wall. She dies soon after – on 9 March 1870 – and the variety was taken up by orchardists around Parramatta, including Edward Gallard and her-son-in-law, James Spurway and Henry Johnston.

 Claimed to be the only photograph
of Maria Ann ‘Granny’ Smith.

In the New South Wales Department of Agriculture’s Gazette in 1895, Albert H. Benson recommended ‘Granny Smith’s seedling’ as a late cooking apple suitable for export. He also obtained the variety for the department’s Bathurst farm, which was a big step towards its widespread use. In 1904 the Gazette published a colour plate of the two varieties, including Granny Smith, incorrectly suggesting it had come from Bathurst or Penrith. On retiring from the government farm, Mr G. K. Wolstenholme planted a very large acreage at his very large ‘Montavella’ orchard, a few miles from Bathurst. He promoted the variety with free case to leading business and professional men, clubs and hotels in Sydney. The fruit merchant Fred Chilton handled the Montavella crop and, experimenting with cool storage, imported oiled wrapping tissues from the USA to prevent cool-store ‘scald’. Picked from March, the Granny Smith could be stored until November, a tremendous attribute.

The original tree was soon cleaned out, and although a small nearby park in Eastwood was named after her in 1950, Maria Ann Smith’s gift to the good eating can be added to the list of insufficiently recognised legacies of our pioneering women. We should rejoice in the eating and cooking qualities of the apple, but we should not forget that the real secret of its success was that it kept, which made it readily transportable. ‘Granny’ developed her apple on the eve of massive mobilisation of Australian food for shipment across the oceans. The apple was transported in significant numbers after the First World War, and by 1975 about 40 per cent of the national apple crop was of Granny Smith, accounting for 50 per cent of apple exports. By then it was also grown extensively by competing Southern Hemisphere exporters in South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile, as well as in France and in USA.

Its success was paralleled by the pear Packham’s Triumph. Bred in 1896 by Charles Henry Packham at his property ‘Clifton’ in the Molong district of New South Wales, it was a cross of Uvedale St German (also known as the Bell) and William pear. Also a ‘very good keeper’, it represented 60 per cent of our pear export by 1980s. While nineteenth-century orchardists and nursery breeders produced countless varieties – offering a succession of tastes, textures and qualities through summer, autumn and winter – twentieth-century merchants preferred predictability.

 

Reference:

Symons, M. (1982). Granny Smith. In One Continuous Picnic – A Gastronomic History of Australia (pp. 110 – 112). Melbourne, Vitoria: Melbourne University Press.

Image:

Pickering, C. (ca. 1863-1913). Smith family photographs. State Library of New South Wales. Retrieved from http://digital.sl.nsw.gov.au/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=FL627613&embedded=true&toolbar=false.