A New England Apple Primer
BY Amy TravERso / ILLUSTRATIONS BY EriK LewandoWski
It’s probably no surprise to most New Englanders that apples have been embedded in the American experience since the Colonial era. Early Americans used apples as a rare source of sweetness in their diets. They made cider to drink and vinegar to preserve the harvest. Freeze-distilled hard cider, known as applejack, was an intoxicant, an antiseptic, a tonic.
As waves of Americans moved west to claim land under the Louisiana Purchase, the government required homesteaders to plant 50 apple trees in their first year, making them a staple of the national diet.
I knew all this as I began my research for The Apple Lover’s Cookbook. What I was surprised to learn was that this all-American fruit was not native to these shores, but originated in the mountains around Kazakhstan, where apples grew wild in Edenic forests filled with every variety of fruit-bearing tree. It took thousands of years for apples to make their way to England and then to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where settlers began the work of identifying which varieties would thrive in this new and harsh climate.
By 1900, the USDA surveyed apple growers across the country and identified 14,000 cultivars in production. As the food system became more centralized, many of these varieties were lost to history. By the time I was a child in the 1970s, local orchards were stocked mostly with McIntosh, Cortland and Red Delicious. But in recent years, the wondrous diversity of apples has reemerged.
“We used to grow apples from the McIntosh family—Macoun, Empire, Cortland—as well as Red Delicious and Golden Delicious,” says Ben Clark, who represents the third generation of his family to run Clarkdale Orchards in Deerfield, Massachusetts. “Back then, we were growing mostly for wholesale. But as we became more of a retail operation, we found that people want Spitzenburg and Baldwin and Northern Spies and all the varieties that are harder to find in the supermarket.”
Every year, Clark and his father, Tom, replant about 5% of their orchard, replacing dwarf trees that have passed their peak bearing years. And increasingly, they’re replanting with not just Honeycrisps and Suncrisps, but with 19th-century heirlooms. Currently, they offer about 60 different varieties.
Likewise, at Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, orchard manager Homer Dunn finds more and more customers requesting the hundred-plus heirloom, cider and other unusual apples during the you-pick season.
“There’s definitely a demand and it’s here to stay,” Dunn says. “People are looking for interesting and different food.” When queried, he owns up to a personal preference for Hudson’s Golden Gem, an Oregon native introduced in 1931, with sweet-tart flavors and pear aromas. He’s even created a map for more adventurous pickers who want to find that one Calville Blanc d’hiver tree north of the retail store. These folks know that a world of new apple flavors and textures awaits them.
Here are just a few of my own favorites, some new, some old, with notes on where they come from and how best to use them. Happy apple season!
(1) Ashmead’s Kernel
Among myriad colorful names assigned to thousands of apple cultivars throughout history, a good number come directly from the person who first bred or discovered the variety (yes, there really was a Granny Smith). Such is the case with Ashmead’s Kernel, named after Dr. Thomas Ashmead, who first planted it around 1700 in Gloucester, England. This golden, russeted apple is a favorite, thanks to a rich, almost effervescent flavor that brings to mind green grapes and Champagne, with a hint of nuttiness from the skin. Fresh off the tree, it is quite tart, but within a month it mellows to a perfect balance of acid and honey.
A ripe Ashmead is so delicious on its own that I tend to eat it fresh, but it does hold up well to baking. Look for it in early to mid October at a growing number of orchards and farm stands.
Best uses: As a dessert apple, in cider and in a simple tart
(2) Black Oxford
There was a time when most family farms had their own apple variety. A farmer would put in an orchard, those trees would drop their fruit and sometimes a new, chance seedling would spring up. If it proved worthy, the tree would stay. But rarely did it venture beyond its home region. The Black Oxford was one such cultivar. It was discovered on the Valentine Farm in Paris, Maine, around 1790, and enjoyed local fame for nearly two centuries. Its speckled purple-black skin gives it a plum-like appearance, and its natural cold tolerance made it well suited to the Down East climate. It ripens late in the season and with proper storage—say, in a root cellar—it could keep well into winter. And like most good keepers, it holds up well in cooking and grows sweeter over time.
Black Oxford found a second life in 1972 when John Bunker, a recent Colby College graduate, met an old farmer named Ira Proctor at the Belfast food co-op he managed. Proctor had come to sell some of his Black Oxfords on consignment and Bunker was entranced by their unusual looks and sweet vanilla-apple flavor. He bought a bushel, then obtained scion wood from Proctor and grafted it onto his own trees. Since then, Bunker has devoted his life to preserving New England’s heirloom apples and the Black Oxford, which remains his favorite apple, is showing up at orchards and farmers’ markets all over New England.
Best uses: In sauce, pies, crisps and as a dessert apple
(3) Calville Blanc D’hiver
This ancient French (or possibly German) cultivar dates back to the final days of the 16th century. It is the traditional apple for the classic French tarte tatin, and it is one of the best baking apples I know. Heavy and knobbed like a quince, it has yellow-green skin that blushes when exposed to sunlight and its crisp, juicy flesh boasts bright acidity and a citric acid flavor that mellows over time.
Like most popular heirlooms, this late ripener (late October to early November) keeps extremely well and reaches peak flavor several weeks after it’s picked. Though still a bit difficult to find, it is now grown in more orchards, including Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton, Massachusetts; Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, New Hampshire; and Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire.
Best uses: In buttery pies and tarte tatin
(4) Cox’s Orange Pippin
Just as most native New Englanders associate McIntosh apples with the flavors of their childhood, so the British recall the Cox’s Orange Pippin. It is generally considered one of the best and most richly flavored dessert apples, with hints of citrus, tropical fruit and pear, and a wonderfully juicy and tender flesh. It dates back to 1825, when it first appeared as a chance seedling at Colnbrook Lawn in Buckinghamshire, mostly likely the scion of a nearby Ribston Pippin. As you may have guessed, a Mr. Richard Cox first discovered it.
As the name indicates, the skin has a yellow-orange base with bright red patches of cream-colored flesh. It tends to ripen in late September or early October and has become popular enough that if a farm is growing any heirlooms at all, they’re likely to include Cox’s.
Best uses: As a dessert apple or cooked down to a sauce
(5) Esopus Spitzenburg
The “Spitz’s” greatest claim to fame is to have been one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple varieties, having come from Esopus in Ulster County, New York, to his Monticello farm in the late 18th century. Like the Cox’s, it is a mid-season apple, ripening from late September to mid October, and like the Ashmead, its juice has a vibrancy that seems almost effervescent. Its flavors run the full apple spectrum, from floral and tropical notes to citrus and spice. As such, it is probably best enjoyed fresh out of hand. However, it can stand up to heat without melting down and it shines in simple preparations like apple crèpes and in a Dutch Baby pancake.
Best uses: As a dessert apple, in simple baked dishes where its flavor can shine and in cider
If the current gestalt leans toward everything local and heirloom, it’s easy to pooh-pooh a pricey modern cultivar such as the Honeycrisp. But this apple, the product of three decades of careful breeding at the University of Minnesota, has earned its supermarket and farmstand popularity. The work began in the 1960s, but it wasn’t released commercially until 1991. It ripens in middle of apple season (late September through mid October) and keeps fairly well in a produce drawer.
Like most popular modern varieties, the Honeycrisp walks a fine line between bright acidity and honey sweetness (hence the name). It’s the apple equivalent of a big, fruity California Cabernet: juicy, bold and crowd-pleasing. It also holds up when baked in a pie or crisp. But because Honeycrisps tend to be pricier than other varieties, it is more cost-effective to eat these apples fresh.
Best uses: As a dessert apple or, if cost is no object, in a pie or crisp
Speaking of the pricey Honeycrisp, the lesser-known Jonagold boasts many of the former’s finest qualities at a gentler price. Bred at the New York State Agricultural Station from a cross between Jonathan and Golden Delicious, it came to market in 1968 and is now grown across the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. It’s not a common supermarket apple, but I’ve seen it at most of the farmers’ markets I visit. Still, it’s not quite as common as its golden parent, which is a shame, because its flavor is much more interesting, with notes of melon and honey. The flesh is tender to the bite, but very resilient in the oven, which makes it one of my favorite pie apples, especially when mixed with something more acidic, like a Roxbury Russet. A mid-season ripener, the Jonagold is best eaten within a few weeks of harvest.
Best uses: In pies, cakes and crisps and as a dessert apple
Before we talk best uses, we have to address the matter of pronunciation: Some say “Macoon” and some say “Macown.” Both seem to be commonly accepted, but in fact, the apple is named after its breeder, Dr. W.T. Macoun, who pronounced his name to rhyme with “noun.” So there’s the final word on that question.
Still, there’s more to say about this long-time New England favorite (it was actually bred in New York in 1909). Born of a cross between McIntosh and Jersey Black, it is sweeter than the McIntosh and tastes of ripe strawberries. The flesh is pleasantly crunchy and juicy, but like the Mac, it breaks down fairly quickly in the presence of heat and doesn’t keep very well. Most local apple orchards grow at least a few rows, despite the fact that it tends to bear less fruit than other varieties, so you’ll find it most everywhere apples are sold.
Best uses: As a dessert apple, in cider and in sauce
Is the McIntosh the quintessential New England apple? Packed into school lunches, dropped on the desk of a kindly teacher, picked fresh from a tree, it has inserted itself into countless childhood memories. Quite a feat for a chance seedling discovered in a Matilda, Ontario, orchard in the late 19th century. The Mac thrives in colder climates, ripens early to mid season (though you’ll find Early McIntosh apples in late summer) and is less familiar to western apple lovers, but its genes have given rise to the Cortland, Empire, Macoun and Spartan. Its tart, spicy, slightly vegetal flavor is a refreshing departure from the honey-bomb varieties currently flooding the market, and when cooked, that flavor deepens into a rich, almost wine-like nectar.
And yet... the Macintosh wilts like a parched lily the moment it’s touched by heat, and it grows mealy a few weeks off the tree. My grandmother made her pies with Macs, and as truly delicious as they were, they amounted to applesauce in pastry. So feel free to throw a Mac in a pie with something firm, like a Jonagold. It’ll create a rich medium for your firm slices. But don’t expect it to perform like a pie apple.
Best uses: As a dessert apple, in cider and in sauce (for lovely color, leave the skins on during cooking, then run the sauce through a food mill)
(10) Pink Pearl
I first encountered this extraordinary apple at a farmers’ market in San Francisco. Curious about the rather bland-looking yellow-brown cultivar, I took a bite. I tasted raspberries, then gasped at the first glance of its vivid pink flesh. What was this strange creation?
The Pink Pearl is a rare breed, a Northern California native first cultivated by pomologist Albert Etter, who created at least 30 varieties of pink- and red-fleshed apples in the 1930s. Most were lost to time, but the Pink Pearl lives on and is now grown in a handful of New England orchards, including Alyson’s and Nashoba Valley Winery. It ripens very early—the season is usually over by mid September—doesn’t keep well and prefers a warmer climate, but it does stay firm in pies and tarts and is worth seeking out for its rich berry flavors and gorgeous color.
Best uses: As a dessert apple, in applesauce or in an open-face tart that highlights its gorgeous color
(11) Northern Spy
Speaking of pie apples, many New Englanders consider this to be the ultimate pie variety, thanks to its firm texture and tart-sweet balance. Like the Macoun, its flavor brings strawberries to mind, and it’s popular enough to find in most supermarkets with a decent apple selection. A mid-season bearer, it dates back to the early 19th century, when it was discovered in an orchard in East Bloomfield, New York. And like most popular apples of that era, it’s a very good keeper, and yet its skin is pleasingly tender.
To maximize flavor, I generally like to mix several apple varieties in my pies, but if I were to choose just one for a single-variety pie, it would be Northern Spy.
Best uses: For baking in pies, crisps and other long-cooked desserts
(12) Roxbury Russet
The Roxbury Russet is the oldest American apple cultivar still in production (an earlier one, called Blaxton’s Yellow Sweeting, once grew on Beacon Hill in the 1620s, but the orchard was abandoned when the Reverend William Blaxton left Puritan Boston for Rhode Island). The Roxbury Russet sprang up as a chance seedling around 1635 in a Roxbury orchard—the site is now known as Orchard Park—and was brought to Connecticut a decade later. Thirty years later, Thomas Jefferson planted it in his Monticello orchard.
Why such popularity? A great keeper, it could be stored well past its mid-October harvest date in the era before refrigeration and even improved with a bit of aging. Its crisp, dense and somewhat coarse flesh holds up well in long-cooked pies and tarts, and its tart-sweet flavor brings to mind lemonade, honey and pineapple aromas. While its pale green, russeted skin lacked the beauty of, say, a deep red McIntosh, it boasted the flavor and thick skin that early Americans valued most.
Best uses: In pies, crisps and other rich desserts
(13) Rhode Island Greening
In appearance, flavor and texture, this historic apple resembles the ubiquitous Granny Smith. It is nearly as old as the Roxbury Russet—records place it in a Newport-area orchard in the mid 1600s—and it’s now enjoying a comeback at orchards all over the region. A mid-season apple, it will keep well into the winter if stored properly (I recommend a paper bag in the produce drawer, if you don’t have a root cellar).
As with many green apple varieties, a green grape acidity is the predominant flavor, and if picked too soon, the Greening can taste sharp, almost vegetal. But when combined with sweeter varieties in a pie or crisp, it offers a tangy counterpoint to a buttery piecrust or streusel topping.
Best uses: In pies, tarts, crisps and other buttery desserts