Although apples, a classic harbinger of autumn, have been grown in Italy for more than 2,000 years, most people are surprised to learn that Italy is one of the two prime European producers of fresh apples, supplying 30 percent of the demand in the 15 EU member states and 20 percent in the more recently enlarged group of 27 states. Whilst Italy vies for supremacy in production with its closest rival, Poland, most of that country’s production is destined for transformation and domestic consumption, whereas Italy’s apples, among them the products of Melinda, the innovative grower’s co-operative, also attract strong interest from other global markets.
One of the earliest known varieties in Italy, the Annurca eating apple, is native to the Campania region. Although it was not documented until it appeared in Pasquale’s Manuale di Arboricoltura in 1876, it is not only thought to be the apple depicted in frescoes on the walls at Herculaneum but it is also one of the varieties of apples mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis historia.
Tuscany is not a major apple-growing region, but it does have one growers’ co-operative, the Illuminati Frutta Soc. Cons. a.r.l., created in 2009. With six producers from the north of the Val di Chiana Aretina and one producer in Umbria, the consortium’s land includes 340 hectares of fruit trees and has a potential annual production rate of over 25,000,000 kilograms of fruit—mainly apples but also pears, peaches and plums, largely marketed nationally.
Also in Tuscany, the Mountain Community of Casentino, one of the four principal valleys in the Arezzo province, is trying to protect antique varieties of fruit found within its territory. Between 2005 and 2011, through a project financed by ARSIA (association for research, development and transfer of innovation in the agricultural sector) and in collaboration with the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna of Pisa, the community set out to identify the best heritage fruits to be included in a ‘basket of products’—dried fruit, jam, fruit juice and biscuits—local to the Casentino, representative of its history and gastronomic traditions. To prevent the loss of this genetic patrimony, an orchard of the fruit tree collection was established at ‘I Luoghi’ in Poppi and another at the Cerreta nursery in Camaldoli. The research continues, but, of the 265 varieties classified to date, 160 are apples, along with 75 pears, 29 cherries and 1 peach.
Veneto largely grows Golden Delicious, Morgenduft, Gala and Granny Smith apples. Piedmont cultivates Red Delicious, Red Chief and Gala. Emilia Romagna is where emerging new varieties like the Fuji, Pink Lady and Modì thrive.
The majority of Italy’s apple crop comes, however, from much farther north. Almost 70 percent of Italy’s apple crop comes from the mountainous Trentino-Alto Adige region, where a wide variety of high-quality varieties are grown and marketed by four large commercial organisations: VOG and VI.P in South Tyrol; Melinda and La Trentina in Trentino.
Taking its name from a combination of the Italian words mela (apple) and linda (clean), the Consorzio Melinda is an interesting business model. Founded in 1989 by more than 5,000 producers organized into 16 cooperatives, its objective is to promote apples from the Val di Non, in the beautiful and fertile northwest corner of Trentino. At an altitude of between 500 and 1,000 meters above sea level and with a unique microclimate—wet in spring and dry in winter—it is ideal for apple growing. About 6,500 hectares are dedicated to apple orchards: imagine a huge garden, 10 kilometres long and 6.5 kilometres wide that yields over 300,000 tonnes or 1.5 billion apples a year. This ‘cooperative garden’ generates US$ 200 million of business annually.
Because the policy making and management of the co-operatives remains firmly in the hands of the fruit growers, Melinda’s strategy is to combine traditional production methods with environmental sustainability; the latest technology in quality control, storage and packaging; and modern marketing techniques. This has created Melinda’s distinctive image, which is easily recognisable in domestic and export markets, especially in Germany, Scandinavia, England and Spain.
To protect this image further, Melinda took out a collective trademark in 2004 and then, once the European Union established a system for the protection of food names on a geographical basis, it registered ‘Val di Non apples’ as a protected designation of origin’ (PDO), based on the particular geographical area and its production method, thereby shielding itself from unfair competition or imitation throughout the EU whilst, at the same time, raising awareness about Melinda apples. This made Melinda apples the first ‘designer’ apples in Italy.
Recently, Melinda embarked on what may prove a far-sighted venture. In June 2014, it announced that it had entered a joint venture with the British supermarket giant Asda to store apples in underground caves in the Alps. Although storing crops in caves goes back to time immemorial, Melinda revived the idea when a local building company extracted rock from mountains in the Val di Non to be used to restore part of St. Peter’s colonnade at the Vatican. Seeing an opportunity and convinced by the cost and environmental benefits, in particular, the reduction of the carbon footprint that this kind of storage would realize, Melinda began work on a facility 800 meters deep into the mountainside for storing 500,000 tonnes of Golden Delicious apples. It is expected to be running by 2019.