Very Apple-y Indeed

The Apple Festival / Almaty Day stage in Astana Square

I’ve been in Almaty for just over ten days, during which time I’ve received a number of requests for a description of the city.  Therefore, several of my debut posts will introduce various aspects of the place I’m to call home for the next year or so.

Contemporary descriptions of Almaty—in guidebooks, travel writing, &c.—tend to open with an etymological examination of the city’s evocative name: “Almaty,” in Russian Алматы, translates roughly from Kazak as “full of apples” or “apple-y.” From 1921 to 1993, or roughly the period of Soviet rule, the city was named Alma-Ata (Алма-Ата), which is a Russified version of the Kazak for “Father of the Apples.” These name reference the belief that the region in which Almaty lies is also one of the few areas to which apples are indigenous.

According to Christopher Robbins in Apples are from Kazakhstan (alternate title: In Search of Kazakhstan. This is an easy read and fun introduction to the country), the wild apple still found here is the ancestor to the modern domestic apple. Although Celts, Balts and Swedes all also historically claimed to be the birthplace of the commercial apple, the issue was supposedly “decided” in the 1920s by the Russian botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. Vavilov, a recipient of the prestigious Lenin Prize, became famous for tracing the origins of numerous common plant species on five continents, including Malus sieversii.

And indeed, Almaty has embraced its identity as “Apple City” (eat it, New York). Above is a picture of Almaty Day, also known as the Apple Festival, celebrated on 18 September. The red dots garlanded across the top of the stage are plush apples, and to either side of the stage (not pictured) were rows of stalls in which local growers were selling their apples. For inflated prices, one was able to taste a range of apple varieties.

Chief among the varieties of apple prevalent in contemporary Kazakhstan is the very large, red Aport. Robbins seems confused as to whether this is the indigenous apple that Vavilov studied; he quotes Vavilov, “The wild apples have very big fruit, and they don’t vary from cultivated varieties” (p. 13), which would certainly describe the Aport, but he goes on to say that the wild apples he found were small and sweet. In point of fact, the Aport is a cross between native apples and a variety from southern Russia. Having tried one at the Apple Festival, it is indeed a noteworthy apple. Although mostly a bright red, the skin transitions to green at the tops, and the flavor combines the sweetness of a red apple with the tartness of a green. The flesh is pale white and sweet. On the downside, it is slightly mealy, and the skin isn’t as crisp as one might like.

Supposedly, the Aport lost popularity in the 1970s and was, at the time Robbins wrote in 2008, was increasingly hard to find in stores and orchards; starting in 2010—and bearing fruit in 2011—however, the government has tried to revive Aport production as part of Kazakh heritage. The Ministry of Agriculture is now subsidizing the production of this specific variety of apple. This at least partly explains the Apple Festival, and the prevalence of Aports therein.

Overall, the day was a fun welcome to the city. All sorts of folks, young and old, were out in one of the city’s main squares. Various musical groups performed, performing both traditional and contemporary music (Kazak rap is perhaps the topic of a future post), and were separated by non-musical events. The picture above is of a pie-eating contest (пирожки; like English pies, not American pies): 30 meat-filled pastries in 5 minutes. It was gross! Unfortunately, I don’t yet own a proper camera, so you will have to bear with the iPhone photographs.

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