Chelsea Green senior editor Ben Watson works from his home in New Hampshire and periodically stops by the White River Junction office for editorial meetings and to bring us some tasty treats. Ben knows where to find the best berries, apples, wild mushrooms and so much more. Being the slow foodie that he is, Ben has some apple wisdom to share before you take your yearly trip to the orchard.
Confessions of an Apple Snob
By Ben Watson, Chelsea Green Senior Editor
October 1, 2006
Every autumn, in addition to my editorial work, I assume my alter ego and become a kind of “apple evangelist,” someone who travels around the country speaking to people about the incredible diversity of apples and, better yet, letting them see and taste some of the wonderful old and uncommon varieties that are still being grown by small-scale local orchards.
By some accounts there are around 7,500 named varieties of apples in the world; yet as recently as a few years ago, only eight varieties comprised 80 percent of the US crop: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Jonathan, McIntosh, Rome, Stayman, and York. Today we have a new wave of market apples: Braeburn, Fuji, Gala, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Pink Lady, and others. In some ways this represents a big improvement; we find fewer and fewer beautiful but mealy and thoroughly inedible Red Delicious in the supermarket produce aisle these days.
However, in other respects the apple is still a bellwether, a symbol of much that is wrong with our current globalized food system. Even though apples can be grown in all but the most subtropical parts of North America, we are importing “out-of-season” fruit from New Zealand and Chile. Yet because there are all kinds of apples – some that ripen in July or August, others that stay on the tree and don’t ripen until November – our season for fresh apples is really much longer than those few weeks in the fall when most people pack up the kids and go picking in the orchard. Apples are not like strawberries or sweet corn, a fleeting and seasonal indulgence. Some local varieties of apples (like the Roxbury Russet, which was discovered in the 1640s and is the oldest surviving American apple variety) can be stored successfully all winter long, and are still good to use in March or April of the following year. Many apples, like Esopus Spitzenburg, actually taste richer and more mellow and reach their height of flavor after a couple months in cold storage. In other words, local apple season doesn’t have to end at Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or even at Christmas.
Small commercial orchards are part of the historic landscape in much of the US, yet today they are threatened by rampant land development caused by rising property values; by falling prices for apples due to global competition (China has recently surpassed the US as the world’s largest apple-growing nation) ; and, quite frankly, by consumer ignorance and apathy. Not so many years ago, most people knew what different apples were good for. Do you want the perfect apple for baking a pie? There are lots of choices, but almost none of the bland supermarket varieties are good candidates. Instead, go to the orchard and buy Gravensteins, Wealthys, or Northern Spys. Are you making a tarte tatin or strudel? Try Belle de Boskoop, a Dutch variety that holds its shape and turns a translucent golden yellow when cooked; or Calville Blanc d’Hiver, an odd-looking lobed green apple with a red cheek that contains more vitamin C by weight than an orange. What about baked apples for dessert? Try using one of the old-fashioned low-acid apples like Pound Sweet or Sheepnose.
Older folks generally can remember their favorite varieties and what they were good for; yet if we don’t support our local orchardists, our children may never see these splendid apples outside of private orchards and historical museums. Such apples often have a wonderful and distinctive flavor or aroma: once you’ve bitten into a Pitmaston Pineapple or Chenango Strawberry, it’s easy to see how they got their names.
With the growing emphasis on eating more locally, small to medium-sized orchards could, and should, become an important component in our local “foodsheds.” We may not all be able to raise apple trees at home, but we can all definitely become apple connoisseurs, and help to carry on one of America’s proudest agricultural traditions.
For more on growing apples organically on a small scale, see Michael Phillips’ excellent book, The Apple Grower, published by Chelsea Green. For more on old varieties of apples, go to Slow Food USA’s website, www.slowfoodusa.org, and turn to the Ark and Presidia page. And for more information on a terrific regional celebration of apples and cider (hard and sweet) in the Northeast, come to the 12th Annual Cider Day in western Massachusetts , November 4-5, 2006 (www.ciderday.org).