Time to speak to the apples

Pettingills

The names of apples make me happy. Here in Southern California I grow Pettingills and Gordons, Golden Dorsets and Winter Banana, Fuji, Granny Smith and a would-be Red Delicious which is neither. I instantly want to excuse myself– I, myself, would never have chosen to plant a Red Delicious, having picked up a mildly critical attitude towards it as a flavor-impaired, poorly textured waxy variety. It shows poor type characteristics, like the odd areas of translucency you sometimes discover near the core. My father, who knew the wonderful vast array of named varieties taught me here and there, even by accident, names and attitudes and stories. His father before him as the caretaker and lover of the Gowen apple orchards spreading generously under the New Hampshire skies, put in many experimental types, evaluating them over the years for inclusion in the different Gowen holdings spread across the lower right corner of New Hampshire.

I remember walks that never reached the limits of those fields and orchards, bordered by capacious woodlands and swamps. I remember stopping by the Golden Delicious, discovering that, even frozen on the tree in winter, the withered speckled fruit tasted marvelous when you cracked off the ice, a sorbet of tangy sweetness with that overlay of caramel that marks a great Golden. I recall my delight in the Macoun, which of course we re-pronounced the ‘MacGowen’ to suit ourselves. One of my favorites with its purple-garnet skin dusted by frost, like someone cast a scatter of powdered sugar across. So white and juicy a flesh, crisp and breaking with a snap. Not too sweet, the Macoun had the flavor of November, I used to think. Not for cooking, ever. Only eaten cold off the tree.

But for an all-around staple… oh you think I’m about to praise the Macintosh? Nope. They’re okay and they do have an interesting milky flavor, a touch musky, and a friendly attitude overall, and generous productivity, but–nope. It’s the Courtland. I have a short ode to the Courtland in one of my next books. The best all-around apple, a great keeper with its waxy skin, quick to polish up into a gorgeous warm red streaked with autumn sun, bursting with juice and as good for a pie or applesauce as it is for eating out of hand. Big enough for a meal. Times have been, that’s what I used them for, but you have to wait for the book to know the context.

What names the old apples carry. Bliss, Winesap, Johnathan, Sheep’s Nose, Baldwin, Pound Sweet, Arkansas Black. Names given with pride and love and anticipation.

But I also I recall the unnamed wild ones that may have even dropped from Johnny Appleseed’s hand. I have wandered in October gloaming and scavenged ancient trees half-sprawled by the insults of harsh winters, leaning on the stubs of chimneys past. Households long scattered, shadow-haunted cellar holes clustered with leaf-shed lilacs. I have discovered little scabby fruit, some bitter, wormed, twisted, scrambled up the roughened bark, grabbing the contorted limbs. And every so often a sound rosy cheek turned to me, fragrance in the darkening afternoon, the bite of flavor, sweetness, all the more marvelous for the disappointments that came before.

For anyone who wants to read more, I just discovered this article: http://www.npr.org/2014/09/19/349626755/keeping-heirloom-apples-alive-is-like-a-chain-letter-over-many-centuries

and then there’s this:

http://www.npr.org/books/titles/342207159/apples-of-uncommon-character-heirlooms-modern-classics-and-little-known-wonders

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Time to speak to the apples

  1. Robin SL

    Two of my favorites from local (eastern CT) orchards — Rhode Island Greening and the wonderful early Paula Red!

  2. I never had close acquaintanceship with either, alas. But evocative names, to be pursued when next in the East. I know my father spoke of the Rhode Island Greening as breeding stock. I’ve heard people relied upon point mutations to create new varieties more than doing traditional crosses, but does anyone out there know if that’s true?

  3. I am drooling for an apple after reading your post. I used to think they all tasted the same. Not so! And once you’ve had a really good one (which are expensive in the stores) you never want to go back to the affordable ones.

  4. Deirdre Barrett

    just moved up to santa cruz. many old apple orchards here, a farmer from corralitos just gave me some pippins. real flavor, like nothing in the markets.
    martinellis cider is also made here.

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