In a previous career, I helped people identify the old apple varieties they found growing on their properties and in abandoned orchards. Apples arrived in the mail from late August through November accompanied by hand-written notes describing the trees’ location and condition, the special flavor of the fruit, and sometimes, a bit of history or a family story. Twenty-five years ago, the best reference was, and still is, the two-volume Apples of New York, by S.A. Beach, written in 1905 for the State of New York Department of Agriculture. In painstaking detail and with many color illustrations, Beach and his associates described more than 1,000 apple varieties that were in cultivation at the time.
For centuries, farmers and landholders lovingly nurtured regional apple varieties and carried them across oceans and continents as they moved to new lands. The oldest known variety, the lady apple, dates back to the Roman empire. The names reflected the apples’ origins: Esopus Spitzenburg, Calville Blanc d’Hiver, Bramley’s Seedling, Arkansas Black, and Westfield Seek-No-Further. Homesteaders grew different apples for cider, cooking, jellies and preserves, drying, and winter storage. Families especially valued the varieties they could store in root cellars until spring, depending on the nutritious fruit through the long winters.
One hundred years after the publication of Beach’s book, some of the old apples varieties are gone. During the past century, fewer people grew their own food and, as agriculture got more centralized, a handful of popular apple varieties filled the commercial orchards. Seeking crop uniformity, easier culture and “shipability”, growers planted millions of McIntosh and Red Delicious, Cortland and Rome, Granny Smith and Gala. Worldwide transportation, modern refrigeration, and storage techniques improved upon the humble root cellar, too, making high-quality apples readily available all year. Consumers demanded perfect, smooth, blemish-free fruit. Varieties with lumpy, russeted skin, and odd sizes, shapes and colors were no longer tolerated, no matter how delicious their flesh. We wanted picture-perfect lunchbox apples and forgot about varieties that made great cider, dried well or kept in the cellar until April.
So why care about old-time apples now? Well, for one thing, lots of us are growing our own fruit again. We’re looking back at the apples that our grandparents and great-grandparents grew and discovering lost treasure. We’re finding regional varieties, originally selected to grow in our particular climate and soil. Cider is back in vogue, too, and locavores are seeking fruits for drying, freezing, and canning.
Heirloom apples are hot. Supermarkets haven’t quite caught on yet, but natural food stores, co-ops, and local markets can’t get enough of them. My grocery shopping trips this week reminded me of this disparity between markets. The regional chain offered about 10 different apple varieties, four of them from a nearby orchard and the others from thousands of miles away. My local food co-op, on the other hand, had nearly 40 varieties on display, and almost all of them grown within 100 miles of the store. Fortunately apple trees are long-lived and some orchardists have kept the old varieties growing. Our co-op buys fruit from several of them, including Scott Farm, which produces 70 different heirloom apples under the care and direction of orchardist Zeke Goodband.
I brought a dozen different apple varieties home from the market yesterday and plan to use them according to their original purpose. I chose Maiden’s Blush for the dehydrator, Northern Spy, Rhode Island Greening and Bramley’s Seedling for pies, McIntosh, Jonathan and Winesap for sauce, and Keepsake, Pinova, Empire and Crispin for fresh snacking. We had a taste testing at dinner and my daughter announced that Keepsake was her favorite because “it tastes like cider.” For the tall, oblong Sheep’s Nose apple, she said, “I could fool myself that it’s a pear.” Try a tasting at your table and share your favorite heirloom apples, too.
You can find antique fruit orchards and suppliers in your area at farmers’ markets, by asking at natural food stores and Extension Service offices, or searching online for “heirloom apples.”