|Joe bites into a dark, crispy' Black Oxford', an antique apple variety that dates back to 1790 in Paris, Maine.|
Think about it - - how often can you really experience something that Benjamin Franklin actually ate? Just name one antique shop where you could eat the exact snack that Abraham Lincoln munched on while writing notes in his office. Here in New England, antiquity we can come across in so many ways that the idea of 'old' sometimes becomes diluted with its abundance- old signage and shops, two hundred year old stone walls and weathered barns, steeples and 'spot's where George Washington slept' - - but with a few, special things, (let's say food or plants), rarity, or maybe simply scarcity, factors in new dimension, once which transforms an experience, and so it is, with antique apples.
Ask most any farmer in New England or upstate New York where their favorite apple tree or variety is, and you will get a nostalgic and passionate short-list of trees, some 100 or even 200 or 300 years old. What you are not going to hear are names like Macintosh or Macoun, and you a re definitely not going to hear Red Delicious or Granny Smith come out of their mouths, after all, these are seasoned connoisseurs of apples, and they know what makes an apple great. Instead, you will hear more curious names, each often coming with a story, for every apple has a good story behind it). Even in his late 90's, my father, in his moments of faux-lucidity, through waves of dementia, dreamed out-loud about having to go pick (his) Roxbury Russets up on Rabbit Hill (after his 'paper route').
Gnarly, russeted, knobby with warts, these aren't always pretty apples, at least to the average consumer, but their names often hint at the magical experience inside - Pomme Grise, Blue Pearmain,Pitmaston Pineapple, Winter Banana -- old apples deserve to be revisited for many reasons, not the least being hard cider! If you are a baker or pie maker, these apples may change how you feel about what apples you mother used, as she was often limited to what was available in the supermarket. Soft Cortland or Macoun apples can turn to pure mush at the site of a pie plate. Why not use the same apple that Benjamin Franklin used (Cox's Orange Pippen or Roxbury Russet) next time? History in a slice of pie.
|With over 3000 heirloom apple and pear varieties hiding in old orchards around North America, it's our duty as plant people to seek out these forgotten fruits and re-introduce them into culture.|
I am discovering even more history about apples in New England through my involvement with the Worcester County Horticultural Society, a society which was founded in 1840 and incorporated in 1842, mostly by industrialists and farmers who had close ties to apples. I've currently been obsessed with reading the proceedings of the WCHS meetings from the 19th century and their annual reports from the early archives which speak to the origins of many of these very apple varieties.
|Ashmead's Kernel - can you say' hard 'cider'? At nearly 300 years old (perhaps older), this relic from the 1700's is noted for its distinctive pear-like flavor and russeted skin.|
There seems to be no escaping historical cross-roads with apples, in my new role on the Board of Trustees at Tower Hill, for this is, indeed 'apple country', and most every bit of history with the 'society' it's history, it's very DNA has apples in it. The WCHS and Tower Hill Botanic Garden even maintains an important collection of old apple varieties at the botanic Garden in Boylson, MA, from which scion wood is shared with collectors (cuttings to graft with), each spring to those who are passionate about saving these living bits of our history.
|At Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, many heirloom apples are now being boxed for sale alongside other autumnal treats such as pumpkins and squashes.|
They are not as resistant to the multitude of diseases and blights so common today with apples (fire blight, scab), and to be honest, most are really not that tasty, being more beautiful than yummy (truth-be-told, a new 20th Century Honeycrisp trumps most any old apple variety with the contemporary, everyday palette of most consumers - yet, in much the same way they also prefer the flavor of news, super-sweet corn varieties, the real connoisseurs argue otherwise.
|Pitmaston Pineapple from around 1785 combines russeted texture with a flavor that can only be described as 'honey and crispy pineapple'. Insane, right? Or, maybe you just want a plain, 'white-bready' Mac?|
I personally adore the look and story of most antique apples, and, I even enjoy the flavor and crispness of a Cox's Orange Pippin or a Baldwin over most any hard, 'modern' apple, but to be fair, most of these old apples were not created or selected because of their delicious, out-of-hand eating potential, these russeted, bumpy or sometimes even ugly fruits had a more serious purpose - hard cider. And who could argue with that!
Homer shared with his his crates of ruby red 'Winesaps' (my mom's favorite) and bloomy, purple --black 'Black Oxfords', along side speckled 'Blue Pearmain' and Esopus Spitzenburg'. I'm discovering quickly that with most of these old apples it's the names themselves which are as romantic as the horse-drawn sleighs and carriages which transported them from orchard to root cellar or cider press.
|Homer showed us his reference book for those fascinating knobbed Russets. It's a difficult tree to grow well, and the fruit has been limited to only a few dozen, but he hopes to increase stock as the tree matures.|
The story behind each one could each be a separate book or post. Scions carried back nestled in linen wraps from England on a sailing ship, preserved fruit saving a family from starvation during a cold and snowy winter, a favorite variety selected and shared with an entire community, almost lost forever in a hurricane but rescued by a single tree - these relics are living history books. They happen to taste pretty good, too.
|My sister in-law Toni, visiting us from Vancouver, WA picks out some' Esopus Spitzenburg' apples at Allyson's Orchard in New Hampshire. These date from the late 1700's. We'll be using them for applesauce.|
If you are looking for something different and perhaps, even a culinary adventure (as many of the old apples are also known as 'cooking apples', search on-line in your area for orchards that have then (you may have to call and ask, for more often than not, only the orchard manager knows, or cares, about these trees). At out favorite orchard (Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire), we call Homer Dunn ( I know, right? As if a Hollywood script writer invented his character). Homer is not only knowledgeable and gnarly, as a seasoned, orchard manager must be, he is also passionate about his apples - he even shared some rarer varieties with us this time, I think excited that some people actually cared enough to ask about them.
|Black Oxford apples are so beautiful! They almost loom like plums|
Unlike heirloom tomatoes, apples don't come true from seed (actually, no edible apple comes trues from seed, so if you are raising a treasured Honeycrisp or Red Gala from seed, expect a a strange, thorny back-cross which will only disappoint). Apples themselves have an amazing story with humanity, many coming from Europe in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to North America. Our garden is only a few towns away from where Johnn Appleseed (John Chapman) lived (Leominster, MA), and most every town and village around here has an apple named after it (Sutton Sweeting, Millbury Sweeting, Roxbury Russet to name a few).
|This Blue Pearmain is more colorful than some of the other fruit from the same tree.|
My favorite apple to eat? It's a variety named Spencer, but I do enjoy a hard, crispy Winter Banana apple for taste as well as for nostalgia - My sister and I knew of a Winter Banana tree at one nearby orchard when we were kids. Another old apple, it dates from around 1876 and to a child, the name itself conjured up fantastical flavors. My sister and I would sneak away from the trees that my parents were working on, to a row of a few Winter Banana's at the far end of the orchard. Filling our shirts with the giant, yellow, waxy fruits we proceeded to hide them in a 'secret' compartment in my dad's station wagon ( as if they could not see us!).
|At home, we laid all of our apples out on the dining table to study the differences. A few quinces were added to the mix along with some lady apples - when consumed fresh from the farm, they are surprisingly crisp and sweet.|
These apple picking trips were common for us, and he would drive our old Country Squire Ford station wagon into the orchard during 'drops season', when we could pick 'drops' to make applesauce with in late October. Our secret stash of apples was seen as 'frivolous' to my dad, who was quite serious about both his apples. Our store room in the cellar had a cork door and galvanized barrels where we should store apples for the winter. Picking apple with wire grabbers and long bamboo poles allowed us to gather the highest apples on the trees, which were by this point in the season, nearly frozen and offered at a discounted price.
|Another russeted apple, Hudson Golden Gem isn't that old after all, it was discovered in 1931 by the Hudson Wholesale Nurseries. It's a good choice for organic gardeners since it is resistant to many common apple diseases and apple scab.|
|Joe packs a box of colorful, mixed heirloom apples to take home. We used tape on which we wrote the names on.|
We still picked a bushel of Honeycrisps!