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Apples are from Kazakhstan

The first thing on my agenda was the country's wild apple orchards. I accept that it is an unorthodox way to set about telling the story of a country and its people, and it immediately became clear that the locals considered my mission eccentric. There were many more beautiful things to see in Kazakhstan than apple trees, people insisted. The wild flowers of spring, for instance, when the mountains are covered with tulips (Kazakhstan is home to thirty of the world's eighty species), and the steppe is carpeted with blood-red poppies, yellow and blue irises, and delicate wands of desert candles two metres tall. 'Our apples look like your apples,' a mystified Kazakh said.

Food historians, biologists and geneticists have argued interminably over the birthplace of the apple. One long-accepted theory held that the ancient Romans introduced sweet apples to northern Europe. Miffed Northerners, on the other hand, declared that the apple had originated in the Baltic and travelled south, citing Nordic myths long predating the Romans in which apples were part of the staple diet of the old Scandinavian gods and their human followers. The discovery of fossilized apples in ancient Swiss and Celtic settlements further confused the picture. Less Eurocentric scientists named the Caucasus as the place of origin - or possibly the slopes of the mountain ranges of Kazakhstan.

The argument was finally settled by the great Russian geneti-cist Nikolai Vavilov. Crossing the mountains on horseback from the - south, accompanied by a mule train loaded with equipment, he visited the Kazakh capital in the late 1920s. 'All around the city one could see a vast expanse of wild apples covering the foothills which formed forests,' he later wrote. 'In contrast to very small wild apples in the Caucasian mountains, the Kazakh wild apples have very big fruit, and they don't vary from cultivated varieties. On the first of September, the time that the apples were almost ripe, one could see with one's own eyes that this beautiful site was the origin of the cultivated apple.'

In his day Nikolai Vavilov was the Soviet Union's most famous scientist, and he identified the birthplace of more plants than anyone else in history. He travelled over five continents investi-gating a theory he had developed early in his career that defied traditional wisdom: he believed that farming had arisen not in fertile valleys, like those of the Nile or the Euphrates, but in mountain areas where water was plentiful and man could more easily defend himself. And so it was mostly mountain ranges-the Andes, the Rockies, the Caucasus and the Tien Shan - where he chose to seek out the original forms of modern plants, fruits and grasses.

The whole of Almaty struck Vavilov as one great orchard, surrounded by forests of wild apples in which every tree was of a different variety. After the Russian Revolution, the city formerly known as Verny had been renamed Alma-ata, meaning 'Father of Apples', and it was renamed once again after independence as Almaty - Kazakh for 'appleness' (fittingly, the Kazakh word for man is adam).

Even today, modern Almaty is a city of apples. Away from the centre's main boulevards there are trees in every garden, some carefully pruned and tended, others gnarled and neglected. They lean crookedly against rickety fences, are left standing lonely in abandoned lots, and take up unlikely position beside bus stops and on street corners. And among the foothills of the Tien Shan, bordering Kyrgyzstan and China, the original Kazakh apple can still be found - Malus sieversii, ancestor of practically all the apples eaten in the world today. Further north, in the virgin vastness of the Dzungarian Alps, wild apples flourish over thousands of acres, untended and so far unthreatened by man.

All the best eating apples we have throughout the world originated from here.

On the journey back into town we passed hundreds of acres of orchards full of ripe Almaty Aport apples. Folklore has it that the Aport variety found its way back to the Tien Shan in 1865 when a Russian soldier, Egor Vasilievish Redko, arrived in a cart with half a dozen saplings on board. The saplings were planted and thrived, and soon the Aport became famous.

In Tsarist times the Aport was valued above all other varieties, and was correspondingly pricey - thirty apples cost more than a chicken. When the apple was exhibited at the Mannheim International Exhibition in Germany, in 1907, a judge enthused: 'The giant Aport apple exhibited by the Verny Orchard School is creating a furore ... the size, taste and colour of the Central Asian fruit is amazing.' Horticulturalists rushed to plant the trees in Great Britain and the USA, but their efforts proved a failure. For some reason the capricious Aport was only truly happy around Almaty, in the foothills of the Tien Shan.

The Aport could grow as large as a baby's head, and it was famous for its flavour and scent throughout the Soviet Union. Kazakhs travelling to Moscow took bulging string bags of apples to give as presents, and traditionally piled the fruit in bowls throughout the house as a natural air-freshener. In Soviet times, 20,000 tons were sent every year to Moscow in wooden crates, each apple individually wrapped in paper and packed in sawdust. All the large State orchards had designated 'Kremlin plots' where the best trees received special care. The trees were carefully watered and fertilized, the fruit covered in gauze, and each apple hand-picked by gloved hands. At State banquets, bowls of Aport apples were as ubiquitous as caviar.

In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins