Fruit drying house

Fruit drying house

The fruit drying house of Gradež is a unique case of perfectly preserved technical and cultural heritage. Villagers of Gradež still use this village fruit drying house to dry their ecologically grown fruit with no additives or preservatives. Thus, the drying house is still working in the same way as it was 70 years ago.

Brick oven for fruit drying

The small brick oven for fruit drying is fueled by firewood and was of the most innovative design in the time of its manufacturing (1938).

The oven floor is arched, long and narrow. A constant temperature of the complete drying room is provided by a system of metal flues. For fresh air supply there is an outside air shaft placed opposite of an inside air shaft, with both having five openings. The incoming air is heated, in this way drawing off fruit steam through an opening on the top of the drying room. The hatch in the ceiling regulates steam and temperature levels in the drying room. The supply of fresh air prevents the fruit from boiling or stewing and prevents the fruit sugar from caramelizing due to high temperatures.

Heating

The floor of traditional construction can hold five pieces of meter-long firewood at once; beech logs are best suited. The current oven floor is a restored version of an original one, without any changes in construction. With the amount of firewood that fits on the floor, sufficient temperature can be guaranteed for four hours. That means new wood has to be added every four hours, day and night. If the wood is of poor quality, this must be done even more frequently. It is very important that the temperature remains constant at all times.

Fruit drying

The drying room is surrounded by a wall in three sides, and one side is left open to insert a drying frame with the fruit. The construction within three walls is made of wood and is in a large part a preserved original construction. The drying frames are new. Old frames that were in service last year were placed in the storage room and are now used as shelves on which dried fruit and other products are exhibited. One frame can hold up to 35 kg of fruit, so that a total of twelve frames can hold 360-420 kg of fruit. There are twelve frames probably because there used to be twelve houses in the Gradež village center.

Fruit drying house

The temperature in the drying room has to be 50°C when the fruit is inserted. The room is then heated to 65°C if apples are dried, to 70°C for pears and to 75°C for plums. The temperature is controlled with a thermometer and regulated either by putting more wood in the oven or by opening the hatch on the top. If the temperature rises critically, the drying room must be opened. The temperature must never exceed 80°C or the sugar would start to caramelize.

With the process of drying, water is removed from the fruit, so that it becomes impossible for unwanted microorganisms to grow. Drying also increases the concentration of sugar which is the only preservative in the bio dried fruit. Apples can keep 18% of water, pears 20% and plums 25-27%. Fruit that is dried correctly can be consumed, if stored properly, from one to three years after drying. If it is dried correctly, dried fruit that is soaked in water should have the same taste as fresh fruit.

Fruit drying house

On some drying frames the drying process takes more time, on another less, depending on the frame position and air circulation. That is why all frames are removed from the drying room every twelve hours, the fruit is stirred and frames returned in another position. Because the fruit is cut manually, the pieces can vary in size. Whole fruit is not sorted by size, but rather fruit of a single owner is placed on one frame. So the fruit that is dry has to be picked and removed when other fruit are still drying. Dried fruit is put in handmade wicker baskets that are in the storage room. Precut fruit takes two days to dry, whole fruit three days, and some larger pears four days.

Only healthy, nice and ripe fruits make quality dried fruit. Fruits dried in Gradež do not contain added sulfur neither are they put in any solution to prevent oxidation. This is why dried fruit is not white, but healthy and without additives.

Beginnings of the drying house and how it works

Today Gradež is most known for its fruit drying house. It is arguably the only still working village fruit drying house in Slovenia.

In 1938, the Turjak section of a Fruit and Garden Association organized a planting of fruit gardens. Financially aided by towns of Ljubljana and Kočevje, they constructed a fruit drying house on common land. The drying house had a small brick oven that was very modern at the time. It was fueled by firewood and had an additional shaft for fresh air supply. Three decades ago, fruit drying stopped, but the drying house was restored in 2003 by the villagers who received funds from the Municipality of Velike Lašče. This was another example of the important tradition, saying that the people of Gradež always stick together. Everybody helped with the voluntary work.

Fruit drying house

The Association for Preserving Heritage is maintaining the drying house, the members are using it to dry fruits, and at the same time they are promoting the old method of fruit drying and traditional ways of preserving fruits and vegetables. In the drying season, ecologically grown and unsprayed fruit is dried using the traditional procedure without any added preservatives. The Association organizes workshops on fruit storage, on hand-making toothpicks and wicker baskets, thus making sure the old customs are preserved. The Association is managing the drying house (the land and building are owned by the Municipality) and would like to see that the fruit gardens would be replanted by their owners. With old sorts of apples, pears and plums, the village would continue to dry ecologically grown and unsprayed fruit with no added preservatives, using the small brick oven.