Brajčino Apples

The first thing we saw in Brajčino was a man dumping crates of rotten apples into a stream.  He waved to us without smiling.  We watched the apples bob and swirl down the current.  This was once the apple capital of Yugoslavia, but the people here are just now learning again how to grow, sell and store them.
Here, a group of farmers and hired boxers sort spoiled fruit from good, boxing up what they can.  So much (too much) was winter softened, barely sellable... but still sweet.  One man handed us two apples as we walked by and we ate them with appreciative sounds.  They really were pretty good.
The orchards of southern Macedonia are in full bloom right now.  This is the beginning of a high plateau that covers much of the country, cut off from the warmth of the south by mountains, still springtime cool.  The leaves are just unfurling on the oaks and sycamores, but the orchards are fully green, with clouds of white flowers and an industrious buzzing of bees.
At one time, the apples that were grown in the Brajčino valley were sent all over the balkans, from Ljubljana to Zagreb.  They were prized for their flavor and their hardiness, and the cider brandy made from the fruit was famous in Macedonia.
"When I was little," a woman we spoke with said, "the trees were huge - bigger than any other apple trees, bigger than these little ones they plant today."  The woman, named Milka, was back in Brajčino after years living in Sweden - she, like almost everyone else in the village, had left as soon as she got a chance.
There are now only about a hundred and thirty people in Brajčino, down from close to a thousand two decades ago.  Communism ruined the apple industry in this part of the country.  The orchard owners, many of whom had grown wealthy, left as Tito came.  Lands were appropriated, fruit trees were left to languish untended for years.  With the old people went the know-how that had sustained the industry for so long, and, even after communism fell, there was little interest in trying to plant new trees.
"We only plant a few trees," Milka said.  "Not like the people down there," she said, gesturing towards the towns further down the valley.  "The young people plant so many. We just have enough for ourselves."
It's not quite accurate - the older residents of Brajčino grow enough fruit to sell and make a living - but her point about the size of the orchards is true enough.  In the high, sloping soil there's not much room for big operations and thousands of trees.  The orchards are small collections of a few hundred apples, following old terraced land down the stream, spilling out around the village and creeping a little ways up the valley towards the snowline.  One of the main problems that the villagers have is preserving their harvest - because there's no large-scale refrigeration infrastructure, they're forced to sell most of their apples in season, at rock-bottom prices.  If they save some fruit, it's liable to go bad, like the crates the man was dumping into the stream.
As we ate breakfast on our last day in the village, a big truck pulled up to the stone building next door.  About a dozen men and women got out - Roma, dressed almost in rags - and unloaded hundreds of packing boxes.  A few farmers showed up, opened the building, and the packing began.  Without refrigeration, the fruit was on the verge of being utterly spoiled - it must have sat inside those stone walls for at least six months.  We asked Divna, the woman we were staying with, where her neighbor would sell the apples.  She didn't know. "When we sold ours it was March," she said.  "They went to Russia."
The workers toasted us as we passed by with our bags.  I stopped for a few quick pictures and one young Roma man laughed and shouted "facebook."  The sun was shining, everyone was in a good mood except the owner of the barn.  He walked from bucket to bucket, looking at the fruit that had been cast aside and grumbling.
We left town with about a dozen small apples, given to us by a man by the bus stop.  He was unloading crates of small cider apples from his tractor cart, stacking them up against an old Volkswagen bus.  Another man came to talk with him and they both stood, smoking, for a while.  They looked at the apples, picked them up and turned them in their hands, then put them back in the crates with heavy expressions.  We talked to each other about how they must remember the trees of their youth, when their fathers and grandfathers had the richest orchards in Macedonia and someone could grow wealthy selling apples.  It seems doubly distant now, those bountiful days wiped away, replaced by cheap fruit and competition from China.  They're trying though.  Springtime Brajčino is still full of apple blossoms.
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