October 18, 2011

The Antique Apples of New England

Antique apples are suddenly back in style, which is no surprise given that heirloom tomatoes and other vintage vegetables are getting a lot of attention lately, but just try and find some in your local market. Like many things, antique apples will simply remain rare, since the market dictates availabilty based on demand,  the high cost of producing and delievering such treats will always keep the antique apple on the specialty produce list, whic too, is not surprising in our mass-market world. ,The number game will keep our Walmart shelves packed with Macintosh and Cortland, so we can jsut forget about convincing ‘Granny Smith’ to try a ‘Fameuse’ snow apple for three times the cost. If you don’t believe me, just try to convince your little daughter to take a big bite out of  brown, corky colored ‘Esopus Sptizenburg’.

The truth is, once you bite into that Spitzenburg, your life will never be the same again; (not that all antique apples taste better than modern ones, some, indeed, suck), but many are quite yummy, a few, even could be food for the Gods- that is, if the Gods don’t mind a few blemishes. Like fine wine and cheese, antique apple varieties are best appreciated by the connoisseur - those who can appreciate the subtle nuances between the hundreds of varieties that are being grown, today. 

Most antique apples are classified as ‘winter storage apples’, which simply means that tthey have a higher starch content than modern selections. Many of the storage types though, are tasty, but one must have patience -  with time in storage, they can develop a sweetness which one may miss when chomping on the pomme, right from the tree.  There are also varieties primarily grown for baking, or for cooking into sauces and stews, and then of course, there are the cider apples, (which, let’s face it - is what old apple varieties generally were used for - alcohol). 

Antique apple varieties have been shared among those who have been in-the-know for at least 150 years. Most are shared between enthusiasts as grafts, and are not started from seed. So sharing these old apples with friends is a little harder than it is with those plants which come true-from-seed (like heirloom tomatoes). Apples are open pollinated, and seed will revert back to whatever parents where used to create the original selection.

My friend Glen Lord sings his praises about a variety called ASHMEADS KERNEL, a russety, misshapen yet tasty variety from the 1700's, and if anyone knows apples, he does - after apprenticing at a well known orchard and winery here in Massachusetts. Glen is practically  J. Appleseed incarnate - he even lives in the town where Mr. Appleseed was raised.  I prefer HUDSON'S GOLDEN GEM, a crispy yellowish russeted variety that tastes a bit like an Asian Pear with a dash of lemon. I prefer hard, crispy apples, but I can sometimes get down a few bites of a store bought Mac or a Rome, if I was tied up and force fed. 

The apples seen here were all picked last Saturday in Walpole, New Hampshire at Alyson's Orchard. They do not allow their antique varieties to be hand picked, but I asked if I could get some of these rare apples to photograph, and they sent me down to the cider house to speak to Homer ( I just can't make this crap up!). Thus begins my Cider House Rules moment - Homer lead me to some crates behind the barns, where they had a few old varieties waiting to be washed and packed for markets ( I'm guessing that they must send the choicest apples to fancy markets in New York - and it's not as if I ever expect to find a nice ORANGE PIPPIN at my local Price Chopper - they are still selling the mealy Braeburn's  that were in cold storage from last year, I can tell).

BLUE PEARMAIN  is not blue, ( and I am too lazy to revise the error in the name above - the blue comes from the bloom that give it a pale tint. Some date this old apple back to 1833,  others, from 1890's, but most are certain that this variety came from to the US from England.  FYI - The dots are called lenticel's, and they are used in identifying many apple varieties, as well as the shoulders, the base, the stem end shape, the color, the russeting, and the taste. Most sources romanticize this apple, but I think that it's like biting into a raw potato. Really?

I know a Blue-Pearmain tree, growing within the edge of a swamp, almost as good as wild. You would not suppose that there was any fruit left there, on the first survey, but you must look according to system.... If I am sharp-set, for I do not refuse the Blue-Pearmain, I fill my pockets on each side; and as I retrace my steps in the frosty eve, being perhaps four or five miles from home, I eat one first from this side, and then from that, to keep my balance.

                                                                                 Henry David Thoreau

On this tasting trip, our favorite apple by far was Hudson's Golden Gem. This russeted conical apple was as hard and crispy as an Asian pear, but was so sweet and juicy that I found myself stashing away a private stash in a secret spot on one of the porches of the house. If there is one tree that I want to plant next year, it will be this one. There seems to be some disagreement on when this variety was introduced, but that is not uncommon with any old variety be it apples, tomatoes or squash. Hudson's Golden Gem is a great duel purpose apple,  a great cider variety and a crispy, firm-fleshed eating out of hand, variety.


BELLE DU BOSKOOP is a Dutch variety, introduced in 1856. A popular cooking apple, it contains two times the amount of vitamin C than Golden Delicious.

Read on for more.........

Famieuse, or Snow Apple is a soft apple, and is reported to be a parent of the Macintosh ( not the computer). This is a very old apple, and according to the web site Orange Pippin.com, it comes from Quebec, not France. In a summary of some information translated from "Le journal d'agriculture illustre" 1889, in QUEBEC Province.  From mid 1700 to 1850 Fameuse was the main grown tree and the fruits were exported to England in large quantities. For some reason, was a massive destruction of the Fameuse apple trees in Quebec Orchards in +/- 1860’s with the introductions of new varieties such as the Wealthy, the Baldwin, and other species from Russia.  A new disease in +/-1885  "Apple scab" or “Fusicladium dentrilicum” caused the end of the last commercial Fameuse orchards.

My mother was raised in New Jersey in the 1920's, and my grandfather had a large Stayman Winesap tree behind the chicken coop. It was still there when he died at age 99 in 1988. Every autumn we would drive down and pick apples to make apple sauce with, since they were mostly 'drops', those apples that dropped off of the tree. Every Thanksgiving my mother would make pies and I would have to bring the through the woods to the neighbors along with a dozen eggs from our chickens. The tips would provide me with candy ( right, like I was going to eat apples at ten years old!).

Zabergau Reinette is a German apple, and it is large. This is clearly a storage apple, for an apple straight from the tree has flesh that is almost too hard to eat. This, like fine wine, must age in a cold, dry storage room in the dark. Best enjoyed apres ski during the longer  nights of winter as a baked apple ( with schnapps!).
Bramley, or Bramley's is a sour apple. One that really needs to be cooked to enjoyed. I like this in apple tarts and especially in my favorite baked apple desert, Apple Crostata from Al Forno's cook book Cucina Simpatica ( you should see my copy, all stained and well used - a sign of a great cook book) . Imagine......utter simplicity - butter, flour, a tablespoon of sugar and apple. No cinnamon, spices or fancy additions. There is nothing better than a buttery crostata on a cold autumn evening ( floating on a pool of lavender creme anglaise). See below:

Celebrate apple season with a simple, sinfully rich apple crostata. Just butter and apples.


  1. In all my time at the U of Minnesota spent hanging out with fruit breeders I've never heard Hudson's Golden Gem mentioned. I'm doubting that it came from there. It does look like a really pretty fruit though. That Black Gilliflower might be the prettiest one I've ever seen, any idea what it tastes like?

  2. As always Matt, an awesome post. You must be crazy busy right now. I can only imagine.

  3. I'm fascinated by apples, despite limited experience. We have many commercial orchards here, but they only grow supermarket varieties. I installed an espalier support for several cordons so I could grow and collect varieties. Most of the ones I've got are the pink or red fleshed varieties developed by Albert Etter; I also have his Wickson crabapple for cider, fingers crossed. I have got the odd old variety tossed in, like Spitzenberg, Pitmaston Pineapple, and Opalescent. I got all of these as benchgrafts from Greenmantle Nursery in California and hope to get many more as they have the widest selection of antiques 300+ that I've been able to find. The website is awesome and well worth exploring.

  4. A wonderful article, Matt!

  5. Great post! And the photos are stunning. We'll definitely have to check out Alyson's Orchard.

  6. Very informative post. Not sure if all this apple listed here can grow in my zone, but will do more research about it. Thank you.

    How I wish I can get the recipe of your apple crostata.

  7. My saliva glands are on overdrive as I’m writing this comment. I love apples and the antique, old world apples you’ve presented in your striking photos seem to be filled with mouth watering goodness.

    I’m not at all surprised that antique apples are hard to find in stores because merchants cater to the dictums of supply and demand. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that I have ever tried any of the apples your writing about and I’ve tried very many in my time.

  8. Great post on a fascinating topic. I wish these wonderful old varieties were more available, they taste so much better. Michael Pollan's "The Botany of Desire" has a good chapter on early American apple varieties, worth reading.

  9. I meant to say when I first read this post that it's really beautiful. You do an amazing job not only with your information but with your photographs and graphics. Really well done! Bravo!

  10. Matt: Loved this article and the beautiful photos of all the apples. I am researching antique varieties for a project. Very timely. Now, where can we get these varieties? Trees of Antiquity? Any other sources? Thank you for the great read.

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