Fruits of the Service Tree

14 January 2021

The service tree (Sorbus domestica) is a rare tree throughout Europe, though its range extends from Glamorgan in Wales in the West to the Alborz Mountains of Iran in the East. One of the only places it is found in abundance is South Moravia, near the Czech-Slovak border, where it is known as the Oskeruše. Being so rare elsewhere, this is also perhaps the only regions where the tree and its fruits have played a significant role in the local community and its food culture.

Brought to the brink and back again

As with the ecosystem as a whole, the destiny of the service tree was profoundly harmed by the agricultural polices of the Communist government which ruled Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989. The Second World War had a disastrous impact on farming output, not returning to prewar levels until the 1960s. With a growing population to feed, the government mandated for a wholesale transformation in land use, with a focus on large-scale, nationalized farms. As such, large numbers of service trees were felled to make way for cereals. But since the end of communism, local communities have made a concerted and ongoing effort to restore the ecosystem, with a goal of planting a million fruit trees in total, in particular the service tree.

A 400-year-old service tree in South Moravia. Photo. Hynek Zdeněk / Blesk.cz

So what good comes from the service tree? Why is it a Slow Food Presidium? The answer lies in the fruit, known in English as the sorb apple. While it may be eaten raw, the taste is too astringent for most, so it is left to ripen until bletting occurs first, making it sweeter. This can take place in storerooms, or while they’re still on the tree. They may also be dried, through which process they come to resemble prunes.

In South Moravia, the most common practice is distilled to make spirits, whether schnapps or liqueurs to aid digestion. As these are often homemade, each family’s is a little different. They’re eager to show them off and compare, too. An annual festival is held where a prize is awarded for the best spirit. The winner has their name inscribed on a plaque kept at the Service Tree Museum in Tvarožná Lhota.

Biodiversity in the face of the pandemic

The area hosts more than twelve different varieties that vary in shape and taste. The White Carpathians area is home to some of the oldest service trees, which have been there over 300 years. On Zerotin hill, in Czech Moravia, there is a 400 year-old tree called “Adamec’s tree”, with a 465 cm diameter. Despite the age, these trees are very fertile, producing roughly one ton each per year. When in season, service tree fruits and its by-products are sold at festivals in villages around the town of Strážnice, especially in Tvarožná Lhota. Most, however, are destined for home consumption.

Vít Hrdoušek (left) inspecting a service tree with visitors. Photo: Hynek Zdeněk / Blesk.cz

Thankfully, despite the chaos and crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Presidium is weathering the storm well. According to project manager Vít Hrdoušek: “In this situation more people are reconnecting with nature and the countryside. The demand for natural products like the ones we offer is there, and our network is stable. Our status has grown through our storytelling strategy at all the farms that are involved. We also have support both from the public and the media. Our next steps are collaborations with National Geographic and the EU‘s LIFE programme.”

The South Moravian Service Tree IS PRESENT AMONG THE VIRTUAL SHOWCASES OF TERRA MADRE SALONE DEL GUSTO. THERE ARE OVER 500 OTHER PRODUCERS THERE TOO! YOU CAN FIND A SELECTION OF PRODUCTS TO BUY (DELIVERY WITHIN THE SCHENGEN AREA ONLY), AT OUR ONLINE MARKETPLACE.

by Jack Coulton, info.eventi@slowfood.it