I arrive in Herrenberg-Mönchberg, a municipality 30km south of Stuttgart on the edge of the Schönbuch forest, on a wet Saturday morning in September. To get here, I’ve been driven through the damp, green orchards of the the centuries-old Swabian Orchard Paradise (Schwäbisches Streuobstparadies) which, made up of approximately 26,000 hectares and around 1.5 million fruit trees, is one of the largest adjoining orchards in Europe. Thanks to a long, hot summer, the landscape here is still a lush bright green, the trees in the orchards thick with apples, pears and late-ripening plums. I’ve come to meet Klaus Maisch, master carpenter and passionate small-scale producer of organic, fresh-pressed fruit juices, to learn how he gets his fruits from tree to glass.
A true orchard paradise
With an astonishing quantity and range of fruits available in the Swabian Orchard Paradise, from cherries in the summer to pears and plums later on in the year, it’s no surprise that the people who live in the region have developed a multitude of ways in which to use it. Fresh fruit isn’t just picked from the trees and sold at markets in this part of Germany, and it’s not only used by bakers, chefs and confectioners: this part of the country is chock full of distilleries, fruit juice- and cider-makers all making the most of what it has to offer.
You’ll find lots of small-scale producers here, and even private ones, families who own a couple of trees and their own pressing equipment, or perhaps have the phone number of a professional fruit-presser who’ll turn their fruit into juice for them instead. The larger orchards who make juice on a much bigger scale employ immigrant workers from countries such as Slovakia, Romania and Russia. At the peak of each fruit season, they’re as busy as the very many bees that buzz amongst the trees here, for the Swabian Orchard Paradise is an ecological paradise too, a vitally important habitat for over 5,000 different plant and animal species.
Fruit isn’t, however, the only thing the Swabian orchards have to offer: there’s a plethora of nature trails that wind their way through them, and hiking and cycling is popular, and there are harvest festivals and museums galore, all celebrating local orchard traditions. If you’ve a sweet tooth and/or a love of the great outdoors, this is a part of Germany you might not want to miss. (Scroll to the end for information on how to visit.)
A morning at Manufaktur Maisch
Klaus Maisch’s fruit-pressing premises is modest-looking shed-like building next to the house from which he runs his carpentry business. The tiled-roofed, new wood and old stone construction is just large enough to fit in his pressing machinery with a little space to manoeuvre himself around it, but also has a spacious area for packing and labelling his juices.
In the small courtyard between the two buildings, apples are piled up in large grey crates, and fill barrels in the back of a pick-up truck next door. I’m looking forward to seeing how Klaus turns them into cold-pressed juice, but first, we head into his warm, cosy kitchen for mid-morning refreshments.
We sit together on benches at a narrow, orange-clothed table with hot coffee and plum pastries delivered fresh from the local baker on the large metal tray on which they’ve been baked. The Zwetschgenwähe are large and flat, roughly the size and shape of a pig’s ear. They’ve been made with a squidgy yeasted dough and topped with small, late-ripening plums with – as far as I can tell – blueish-red skin and sweet reddish-orange flesh, a sprinkling of yellow crumble and a generous dusting of powdered sugar. They are simple pastries, and look slightly haphazardly assembled, but it all feels rather indulgent for a casual mid-morning snack.
Into the orchards for apples and pears
After coffee, joined by 29-year-old Orchard Queen Verena Beuttler, Klaus leads the way to his orchard on his lightly mud-splattered red tractor. Verena is ending the first of her two years as the local area’s orchard representative – effectively a marketing role – and having come from a family of fruit-growers herself, is at home amongst the fruit trees. She may be dressed in a pretty green dirndl and have a tiara perched on her head, but Verena’s feet are clad in thick socks and hiking boots.
The trees we come to a halt at – late-ripening apple, pear and plum – are, Klaus tells me, between 60 and 80 years old. We gather together beside a large a pear tree, its branches heavy with pale green fruit, still wet from early morning rain. Klaus pokes a long stick with a hook on the end of it into the upper boughs of the tree and, snagging it on one of its branches, shakes it wildly into order to encourage the fruit to fall off.
The pears – juicy, sweet-sour Gute Luise, an old sort first discovered in France in 1778 – come off the tree in droves, thumping hard onto the wet grass below. We collect bucketfulls of the fruits, which we empty into large plastic barrels on a trailer attached to the back of the tractor.
We repeat the exercise with a neighbouring McIntosh apple tree (tart, red-green apples first found in Canada about 40 years after those pears were discovered), Klaus using a stick with a rolling basket attachment to gather them off the floor. It’s all late fruit that can’t be sold as is, and these apples and pears are all prime for pressing.
How to make cold-pressed fruit juice
We return to Manufaktur Maisch with, Klaus guesses, around 70kg of fruit. After lugging the barrels off the back of his tractor, he tips the pears onto a sort of drawbridge, which he built himself, and then tips it up so they roll through the open window and into a trough of water for washing.
Klaus presses a button and the machine judders into action. The fruits shoot up a wide steel pipe into a large compartment, where they’re crushed and fed back downwards into a large juicer. The skin, pips and flesh come out at the far end of the machine a bit latter, parched and completely flattened, to be used as compost or animal feed. The liquid, meanwhile, is pours into a v-shaped shelf before it gushes out through a fine sieve into a large metal trough below.
Verena collects a jug of the unfiltered pear juice for tasting; the rest is piped to one of three large, cylindrical containers, where it waits for Klaus to get the pasteurisation machine going. Before it’s pumped into self-standing 3-litre pouches, the juice is heated to 78 degrees to destroy bacteria, yeast and fermentation cells. Kept in these bags, the juice is incredibly long-lasting – an open bag will last 2-3 months.
Once the bags of juice are sealed – which is no mean feat when the liquid’s still steaming – they’re labelled and left to cool. There’s been no sugar added, and no preservatives, and the juice has been processed in less than 20 minutes, using pears that under an hour ago, were hanging on their tree. The shed smells amazing.
Verena pours me a glass of the unfiltered pear juice, and I take myself outside into the fresh air to try it. It’s refreshing, a little sweet, and intensely pear-ish. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it.
Most of Klaus’s fruit juice is sold to private customers. Some he sends up to Mainz to be turned into alcoholic and non-alcoholic seccos, bottled, and returned to him for local sale. We toast each other with a glass of his pear secco, and head back across the yard and into the kitchen for lunch.
We help ourselves to food before sitting down once more around the orange-clothed table. On the sideboard, there are baskets of sliced dark loaves and spindly-armed pretzels from the local baker, wooden boards piled with fatty lamb and pork sausages and herb-crusted goats’ cheeses, all made by Klaus’s friends. On paper, it’s a simple meal, but to be offered such things, all made with passion and respect for the produce of a region so rich with tradition, feels like nothing less than a luxury. We toast each other again, this time with glasses of plum secco, and get on with eating our lunch.
Visiting the Swabian Orchard Paradise:
The closest international airport is Stuttgart (STR). The best way to travel around Germany is by local and long-distance train; travel can be booked quickly and easily up to three months in advance, in English, at bahn.com or raileurope.com.
Manufaktur Maisch, Benzingerstraße 8/1, 71083 Herrenberg-Mönchberg (website in German)
Visit Baden-Württemberg (website in English).