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Stalking the Roxbury Russet, finding the Bartlett Pear

March 30, 2012

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of sophomores at the John O’Bryant school in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Their teacher, Ian Doreian, contacted me several weeks back to say that his students were going to do a special workshop on food writing and would I like to come in and discuss what I do? Of course! The kids were bright and welcoming and meeting them was a wonderful treat.

The class

Ian Doreian

We talked about cookbooks, restaurant criticism, and writing in general.  And there was one fact I particularly wanted to share: not far from where we were standing, the first Roxbury Russet tree sprung up around1635. It’s the oldest American apple still being grown today, a richly flavored keeper, and you can find it at heirloom orchards like Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton, Massachusetts, Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, and Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont. I promised to bring some apples in the fall so the students can taste them.

The one thing I couldn’t offer was the specific site of that first orchard. I’ve looked into it, but I have yet to get a clear answer. But right near the school, I did find something very special. Ian had directed me to Fort Hill, one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods (and famous for its distinctive 1869 water tower).

Fort Hill Tower

He had noticed the remnants of an old apple orchard on Highland Street. I drove over to see it.

Old Highland Street apple tree (look for the thicker trunk in the center)

The old trees were untended, scattered among newer growth, and I doubt they are bearing much. And, of course, none of them date back to that original orchard. But they are living proof of the agricultural heritage of this area.

And here’s more proof.

Bartlett Street

Bartlett Street was once the site of an 19th century fruit orchard owned by Enoch Bartlett. On this property were some old British pear trees called Williams, but Bartlett renamed them after himself. And thus we had the Bartlett pear, now available in most any supermarket.

I’m anxious to dig deeper into Roxbury’s fruit history, and maybe even plant some new Roxbury Russet trees on the O’Bryant campus through the Boston Tree Party. If we can pull that off, this apple will have truly come full circle.

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