A story about John Howell’s apples, his Yarra Valley orchard & rustic apple pie

John Howell Yarra Valley apples

John is a 4th generation fruit grower with an orchard in the Yarra Valley that was first established by his great grandfather in the very late 1860s.

In his words he’s “passionate about producing good quality produce” and is “very interested in maintaining the availability of, and producing more of the heritage varieties which are no longer produced for the consumer” because “heritage varieties have great culinary properties, their flavours and textures are so different to the new varieties”. 

How lucky are we to have growers like John. He produces such high quality fruit for us Melbourne folk to enjoy. And it’s really just for us; you can only find his fruit at farmers’ markets.

Until recently I didn’t know a lot about John, despite having had many interesting conversations with him while visiting markets. He has a wonderful wit, which if you do get the opportunity to have a chat with him really adds to the joy of the farmer’s market experience.

This is just one special reason for visiting farmers’ markets; you’re able to chat to producers and learn about their produce. But also taste it, buy some, and perhaps even have a laugh along the way. You’re sure to smile, and you’re taste buds will certainly be dancing.

Flemington Farmers' Market

John is a well-known and very well liked character within the farmers’ market community. His experience in the industry of fruit growing is tremendous. For 11 years he’s been selling his produce at farmers’ markets in Victoria, travelling to markets almost every single weekend of the year.

Last weekend I visited the Flemington Farmers’ Market, where John sells his fruit every Sunday morning. Here’s what he had to say about his orchard, apples, sustainability and why he loves selling his fruit at farmers’ markets.


Lara: “So where is your orchard?”

John: “Well, we’re 8km out of Lilydale, in the Yarra Valley, not far from the city at all. We have lots of fruit trees.. apples, pears, a whole range of blood plums, yellow flesh plums, cherries, figs, lemons, limes and shahtoot mulberries … we have 2 houses and sheds. The orchard covers two thirds of the property and is surrounded by native vegetation, which keeps the birds happy”.

John lives in what was his grandfather’s home; a now restored and renovated weatherboard. He has fond memories of his grandfather making apple pie by the open fire – “he used golden delicious, and used to peel and slice the apples, then layer them in a pie crust pastry in a pie dish, then bake it in the oven. I will never forget that. A friend down the road used to give us fresh cream from the cows, and that helped”. – Wow, yummm. I made a mental note to revisit the topic of pie.

Lara: “How did you come to running the orchard yourself?”

John: (he grins) “Well, it was my first job. I left school at 15 to help my father run the orchard. We used to cart a lot of produce to the Queen Vic Markets and Footscray Markets”

Lara: “There’s a fair bit of work, I assume you’re not the only one looking after the orchard and selling produce?”

John: “My kids help a lot, I have 3, although my daughter would rather be riding her horse, but she helps a lot. And I have a couple of part timers who help too”

Monique who is 20 helps with running the orchard, and John’s two sons Peter, 23 and James, 19 both help with selling produce each week.

Lara: “And what does a typical day look like for you?”

John: “Well we’re up around the crack of dawn, this time of year we’re predominantly still pruning and mulching the orchard. Pruning is a very time consuming process where you have to cull out certain branches, to let sunlight in, to get a better quality crop for the coming summer fruit season. So we’re basically just culturing before the bud burst happens.. when green tips and flowers start emerging.. which will happen in about a month now”

Summer fruit season is approaching, but for now John has apples, pears and lemons available to buy. While these are autumn fruits with modern technology they can be picked and kept fresh throughout winter and into spring.

John Howell Yarra Valley pears

Lara: “Do you ever have a day off?”

John: “Well when you work 8 days a week you sort of need to sometimes. Yes I love to take off with a little boat, we go fishing and camping sometimes, we go to the Murray.. Lake entrance is really nice too”.

Aside from travelling with his kids to beautiful spots in Australia John keeps up to date with what’s happening in the industry; he’s very well connected with other growers and is an avid reader.

Lara: “You’re very interested in sustainability.. what sort of growing methods do you use?”

John: “Well, we’re not certified organic but we use sustainable growing methods and organic methods were we can. We use 100% organic fertilizers, no herbicides and only use organic based fungicides when we absolutely have to.. so we’re looking after the soil, and continually improving it. Now we’re heavily mulching which retains moisture.. this looks after and feeds the micro-organisms in the soil.. so the trees are healthier and stronger… with all of this the fruit certainly tastes better”.

Lara: “There is certainly is a difference. It’s hard to buy supermarket apples after tasting apples like these .. What are your heritage varieties?”

John: “Well, the first apple we pick for the season is called Boy’s Delight, they’re very sweet.. The Bramely Seedling is a cooking and cider apple. Others are Stewart Seedling, Snow, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Grimes Golden, Gravenstein and Doctor Hogg which is a cooking apple”

Lara: “And you also have Nashi’s”

John: “Yes Nashi fruit, very popular, especially with the kids, so sweet and juicy”

Nashi pears

Lara: “Yes Nashi’s are a great one for kids lunchboxes… So what are your most popular apples?”

John: “My biggest sellers are Pink Lady, Royal Gala and Fuji, then Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Stewart Seedling, Jonathan and Snow.. I grow the new varieties as they are very popular but it’s nice to be able to offer heritage varieties too”

Fugi apples

Lara: “I really love your firm golds.. these are my favourite”

John: “Oh yes the Firm Golds are very crisp, very nice.. All have their own season, they’re all good for a certain time of year”.

Lara: “And what’s your favourite?”

John: “Oh, the Gravenstein, it’s one of the earliest varieties with such high characteristics of really rich flavours.. very distinctive. Come see me in the 2nd or 3rd week of Feb and you can try one”

With some of the heritage varieties John has smaller crops so it’s worth getting to markets earlier in the morning to ensure you get to try one.

Lara: “It’s a lot of work, harvesting, packing and travelling to farmers’ markets every weekend..”

John: “Yes, a lot of time and effort is involved by all parties to run a farmers’ market. But it’s worth it. The best part is being able to chat with the consumer and talk about the product” and “selling it where it’s really appreciated.. the people are fantastic, it’s very community based”

apple box

Lara: “One last very important question – do you have a favourite apple recipe?”

John: “Well I don’t often cook apples. But I’ll have a look, I’m sure there’s an old book somewhere, perhaps I can find an old family apple pie recipe..?”

Lara: “Ohhhhhh yesss, that would be amazing.. well, in the meantime if I make a pie, what apples do you suggest I use?”

John: “Stewart Seedling. They have a beautiful tart character, cook fast and to a pulp easily. But other apples are nice too, like Granny Smith and Golden Delicious. And Pink Lady’s actually cook well too.. if you’re after something readily available”

Stewart seedling apples

After talking about apple pie, I had to make one. Good apple pie is just SO delicious and satisfying for the soul. Also, the process of making it can be very therapeutic. So I left the market with some Stewart Seedlings, plus mandarins, a bundle of veggies and bread for the week.

The recipe below is a mix of several other recipes. It’s easy and makes enough pie to provide a nice dessert slice for 4 or 5 people. I used Stewart Seedling apples but you can use any apples really. With fresh cream, icecream or custard this is divine.

Rustic apple pierustic apple pie

If you’d like to try some of John’s fruit, you can find him at the markets below, and for information about these farmers’ markets visit: www.vicfarmersmarkets.org.au.

Every Sunday: Flemington Farmers’ Market

Every Wednesday: Melbourne University Farmers’ Market

1st Saturday: Veg out St Kilda Farmers’ Market

2nd Saturday: Coburg Farmers’ Market

3rd Saturday: Gasworks Farmers’ Market

4th Saturday: Abbotsford Convent Farmers’ Market

5th Saturday: Fairfield Farmers’ Market

Thursday night: Goldsbrough Lane Farmers’ Market (this is a very new market in the heart of the Melbourne CBD, running on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of each month, 4.30pm- 7.30pm)


Rustic apple pie



For filling:

4 medium sized apples

1-2 Tbsp. brown or raw sugar

lemon rind, from 1 big lemon

lemon juice, from ½ a lemon


1 cup water


For pastry:

2 cups pain flour

125g unsalted butter, cut into little cubes

1 Tbsp. sugar

4 Tbsp. iced water

2 Tbsp. milk

A dash of vanilla essence

Extra brown sugar to sprinkle on top




  1. Preheat oven to 180°C (or 160°C fan-forced).

To make the pastry

  1. Put the flour in a large bowl and add cubes of butter. Use your fingertips to rub the butter into the flour until you have a mixture that resembles coarse breadcrumbs with no large lumps. Add water and using your hands mix until a dough is created. Wrap the dough in gladwrap and refrigerate for 20mins. If you have a food processor, this is a faster and easier way to make pastry – put the flour and butter in the food processor and pulse until the butter is rubbed into the flour. Then with the motor running, slowly add the water through the funnel until the dough comes together.

To make apple filling

  1. Peel and core apples and cut into thick slices. Then place apple in a medium saucepan with sugar, lemon rind, lemon juice, a sprinkle of cinnamon and 1cup water. Bring to boil then simmer over low heat until apples are only just soft. This may take 5-10mins depending on the type of apple you use. Once apples are soft remove from heat and set aside.

Making the pie

  1. Roll the dough between two large sheets of baking paper until measures about 35cm in diameter. Remove the top layer of paper and carefully lift the bottom layer of baking paper with dough onto a large oven tray.
  2. Pile the apples into the centre of the dough, leaving a 5-7cm border.
  3. Fold pastry edge up around the apple and brush the pastry with milk. Sprinkle with brown sugar and bake for 40mins or until the pastry is golden brown.
  4. Serve warm with ice cream, cream or custard. SO good.


Lara xo

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