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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Heritage apples

A is for apple, but if we look at heritage apples we can march right through the alphabet: Baldwin, Cox’s Orange Pippin, (Old) Delicious, Esopus Spitzenberg, Golden Russet, and on through to Northern Spy, Roxbury Russet, Stayman Winesap and Westfield Seek-No-Farther.

The Roxbury Russet and Westfield Seek-No-Farther remind us that some apples had a very local fame and audience before they spread to wider fields. In fact, Roxbury Russet was the first named apple in Massachusetts.

Even though we think of apples as a quintessential American fruit, apples originated in southeastern Asia, Kazakhstan and Turkey thousands of years ago. There are over 7,000 cultivars, but you don’t usually get any sense of how many apples are grown, even now, if your only experience with apples is from the supermarket.

Fortunately, we live in an area where apples thrive and where we have a number of small orchards selling a much wider variety of apples — and cider. Last week, I visited Apex in Shelburne, Barkley’s in Heath and Clarkdale in Deerfield and my husband is looking forward to apples cooked sweet and savory as well as the healthful apple a day eaten out of hand. I never get tired of apples and my father said no meal was complete without his apple for dessert.

Tom Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farm said there are still Baldwin and Northern Spy trees on his farm that his grandfather planted. He said that Baldwins were an important New England apple. At the turn of the 20th century, Colrain had more Baldwin apple trees than any other town in the state. The apples came out of Colrain on the trolley, then to the train in Shelburne Falls, and then to Boston where they were shipped to England. It was the Baldwin’s keeping qualities that made this possible. “Of course, this might just be a local legend,” Clark said. But it does seem possible.

In the 1930s, there were winters so severe that most of the Baldwin trees were killed. It was the new Macintosh apple that took its place. This apple has a tender skin and doesn’t keep as well, but refrigerated transportation was becoming available so keeping quality wasn’t as important.

Clark grows a range of heritage apples along with the newer varieties like Honey Crisp, but he said that he liked Baldwins and that a “ripe russet is nice.” He did say that Americans in general liked pretty red apples but that the Jonagold apple, a cross between the Jonathan and Golden Delicious is the most planted apple in Germany and France. He has heard “that Americans buy with their eyes, and Europeans buy with their mouths.”

There is a new interest among foodies for cider, soft and hard, but Clarkdale Fruit Farm has been making cider for 50 years. Many of these old apple varieties make especially good cider. My friend Alan Nichols planted a cider orchard quite a number of years ago and those apples are in demand again as the new owner of the orchard is making his own cider.

Alan Nichols’ brother Lew wrote a book, “Cider: Making, Using and Enjoying Sweet and Hard Cider,” with Annie Proulx back in 1980, which is still available. Nichols and Proulx suggest a long list of cider apples for New England that includes Baldwin, Cortland, Esopus Spitzenberg (Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple), Gravenstein, Jonathan, Fameuse, Roxbury Russet and Stayman Winesap among others.

Cider is such a fashionable drink right now that we celebrate locally with Cider Days, scheduled this year for Nov. 3 and 4. This event will take place at a number of locations in Greenfield, Deerfield, and Shelburne. You can find a full schedule of tastings, apple butter making, a locavore harvest supper and more on the website www.ciderday.org .

Apex Orchard in Shelburne also grows a wide range from Baldwins, Spitzenbergs, Macouns and Fuji as well as Reine de Pomme and Ashmead Kernel that they grow for West County Cider.

I cannot say I was surprised to see that West County Cider’s Redfield was a featured recommendation in the November issue of Martha Stewart’s Living. West County Cider makes several varietal hard ciders, which only use a single apple variety, like Redfield as well as a Heritage Blend Cider. Many chefs are now thinking about pairing a cider with a particular dish, the way wines have been paired in the past.

I was talking to Sarah Davenport at Apex Orchard and she said she liked Macoun and Fuji apples, but it was hard to choose a favorite.

Tim Smith of Apex refused to limit himself to one favorite apple. He said he liked them all, but he said his grandfather, Lyndon Peck, had a favorite — the large Pound Sweet. “He had a baked Pound Sweet with his breakfast every morning from late September until March,” Smith said.

I am so happy to have all these apply choices. Sue Chadwick, who had a huge collection of heritage apples in Buckland when I was librarian there, told me the secret to her famous apple pies was using several apple varieties. I start with Northern Spy because there is an old saying “For the best pie, use Northern Spy.” Other good pie apples are Roxbury Russet, Baldwin, Granny Smith, Jonagold, Golden Delicious and the new Honeycrisp.

I also just learned that Cornell University sells apples from their experimental orchards in vending machines on campus. Those smart university people appreciate the importance of an apple a day!

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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