An Apple a Day . . .

I did something unusual and wonderful last Friday: I went to an apple tasting! This was the first time I had ever “tasted” apples with an eye to comparing the flavors of different varieties, and it was a fantastic, educational and fun experience.

We went for a visit to Moonfire Orchard in Northern Virginia which is run by a colleague of my husband. The orchard owners, Pat Hagen and his wife Jean, welcomed us into their home and chatted us up about apples and their plans for the orchard. They are growing only heirloom fruits and vegetables and carefully research each variety before adding young trees to the fields around their home. They have apples, cherries and blueberries as well as some heirloom vegetables – especially tomatoes and peppers – planted by custom order from local restaurants. We had hoped to get out and walk around the orchard, but the storms we have been having recently have left a thick layer of snow and ice on the property, so we confined our exploration of apples to an indoor tasting with apples grown on premises, but acquired from another orchard currently selling fruit.

Heirloom Apples for Tasting
Heirloom Apples for Tasting

The apples we tasted are pictured above with the Winesap at about twelve-o’clock, White Winter Pearmain to the right, Gold Rush next to that followed by Black Twig and Newtown Pippin closing the circle at around ten- or eleven-o’clock.

Pat told us that apples fall into basically three categories: eating, cooking and cider apples, and that there is a lot of overlap between these categories. Some apples work nicely in all three categories, some on the other hand are best for cider, but not for baking or eating.

We started with the Winesap. This apple originated New Jersey around 1800 and has given rise to many other famous apples including the Stayman, and Arkansas Black. It is a small to medium-sized apple that ranges from yellow streaked with red to the rich red of our Winesap in the picture. This is an apple that tastes like a grape. Its remarkable. As I bit into it, I immediately thought of the “Scuppernong” cider popular during colonial times that has been recreated at Colonial Williamsburg as a blend of apples and grapes. Pat explained that the Winesap is the base of many hard ciders because of its taste and juiciness. He also said that it was not the best apple for cooking and commonly lost its form when baked. Ahh but what applesauce!

Next up was the White Winter Pearmain which really does taste a bit like a pear. It has a confused history with some accounts saying that it has ancient roots in Europe beginning with the Romans around 12 ACE, some saying that it is an English apple dating to around 1200, and others saying that it is an American apple, originating around 1849. Whatever its history, this isn’t the prettiest apple you’ve ever seen as it is often covered with brown dots, but it does have a nice, almost sweet, complex flavor that is pearlike. It also is great for desserts.

Johnny Appleseed
Johnny Appleseed

The Gold Rush was next. Gold Rush is a modern apple that was created at Purdue University in the early 1990s from a Golden Delicious apple and an “experimental” apple. True to its name it has a powerful flavor that changes over time. It is very tart at harvest (early to mid October), it mellows to excellence as a dessert apple after 6-8 weeks in storage. It is a good cider apple as well as a good cooking apple as well and it keeps its form nicely. A good all-round apple with a great (often tart) taste.

Following on to Gold Rush was the Black Twig apple that was introduced about 1830 as a seedling on the farm of Major Rankin Toole near Fayetteville, Tennessee. It has a nice and subtle flavor, soft texture, and makes a perfect apple pie. It is best after having been stored for a few weeks after picking in October. The Black Twig apple was one of the varieties planted by John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) during his wanderings from Pennsylvania to the Ohio frontier in the early 19th Century.

Saving the best for last, Pat laid the Newtown Pippin on us. This apple has an umami wow-factor to it that makes me wonder what the glutamic acid content of its flesh is. The flavor changes and increases as one chews it and you can feel distinct areas of the tongue being stimulated as you eat this fruit. It is said to have been George Washington’s favorite apple and originated in New York in the early 18th Century. Widely enjoyed during the colonial period they were brought to Europe in 1758 and caused a sensation there – with everyone wanting the fruit and saplings. The trees didn’t grow well in Europe and a lucrative trade in the apples began after the English apple crop failed in 1773. The fruit was exorbitantly expensive and went for four pence an apple at this time. The flavor is complex and delicious and develops as the fruit matures after picking and it also holds up well when cooked. Another great all-round apple.

Apple Blossom
Apple Blossom

After we tasted the apples, we had a slice of Jean’s delicious Black Twig apple pie and talked about the future of Moonfire Orchard. They are laying in another 100 trees in February and hope to begin selling their heirloom fruit in about three years. Some of the trees are already blooming, but they are pruned back to make the trees larger and more vigorous, even though doing this breaks Pat’s heart. They also want to get into cider production down the road as well.

I learned so much during the tasting that it is impossible to share it all in this space. I learned that there are apples cherished mostly for their aroma, called Strawberry Apples, such as the Strawberry Parfait and Chenango varieties, that were used as air fresheners in times past. I learned that Black Walnut trees planted upstream of an orchard will make it impossible to keep the apple trees alive and healthy, and I learned how a simple request for, “a couple of fruit trees,” in the garden can turn into a new life for two great people.

If you haven’t already done so, I recommend an exploration of heirloom fruits and vegetables.  Bred for flavor, texture and aroma instead of appearance, they will make any dish better and possibly introduce you to some new favorites. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Heirloom Apples for Tasting by Laura Kelley and Johnny Appleseed taken from a US Postcard ca. 1972, and Photo of Apple Blossom by Roger Griffith, Wikimedia)


10 thoughts on “An Apple a Day . . .

  1. I spent years thinking an apple was an apple. Then I made a seismic change and started using different apples with different things, but still pretty small… you know, delicious vs grannie smith. With farmer’s markets the world opened up. They even give characteristics of the apples on little signs now! It really does make a difference. Would love to try all the old fashioned apples. Lovely piece…. Happy New Year to you~

    • Hi Deana:

      I was also introduced to a new world of flavor in tasting these heirloom apples – absolutely fantastic! As you mentioned, I’ve used store varieties for different purposes for years: Rome or Rome Beauty for pies; Grannies for Sauerkraut and roasts etc. But these apples were above and beyond the taste of any apple I’ve ever had before. I’m so glad there has been a resurgence of interest in them over the last few years.

      Happy New Year to you too, even though I’m betting that Dr. Lostpast regards it as nothing more than timekeeping. . .

  2. First and foremost: a very happy and fulfilling 2013! Can’t believe you are at home tasting apples! How delightful for me 🙂 ! My first longterm marital family owned one of NSW’s largest apple orchards about two hours W of Sydney as almost a ‘hobby-farm’! So I know just a tad about apples tho’ they have never been quite my fave fruit! Well, it HAS been some time, but the only variety I know from here is the Pippin and I have heard of the Winesap [not much grown here!] What a fascinating journey of yet again learning! We are beginning to use a lot of heirloom seeds here in Australia, usually in small home gardens, and there are indeed hugely interesting kinds available!!

    • Hi Eha:

      What a story! Are apples not your fav because you don’t like the taste, or because they remind you of your ex? ;>)

      Nice to see that the heirloom trend is catching on down under. I imagine your heirloom fruits are much different from ours – I’d like to know more about them.

      Happy New Year!

      • [Laughing] No indeed! For some reason I simply love softer fruits, mostly tropical, like mango and banana or the wonderful stonefruits and grapes of summer! Don’t know much about heirloom trees except for seeing them in catalogues, but, in my small way, have enjoyed vegetables like multihued carrots and oldfashioned ‘green stuff’ 🙂 ! Always look for them in our ever growing number of farmers’ markets!

  3. The first home I remember was an acre planted with a variety of apples. The prior owner’s name had been Chapman. The home was built in the 1930’s. He was probably indulging his sense of humor since Johnny Appleseed’s real name was Chapman.
    We moved when I was seven but I still have very distinct memories of the individual characteristics of the apples. Which matured first, or were bitter, white or yellowish, sweet or starchy, hard, ugly, prone to spots etc. My father and grandfather became cider fanatics. My friends and I had favorite trees and favorite apples.
    With the death of my grandparents the house was sold. The lot divided. The trees torn down for a truly ugly brown house that makes me think of trolls.
    Macintosh were my chldhood favorites and I struggle to find them in Virginia. There are good heirlooms and good new crosses.
    So many apples. So little time.
    Many years ago–perhaps the ’80s –the New Yorker had a piece on testing apples for pies. The surprise favorite? The final pie with a variety of leftover apples from the earlier pies.

  4. So, here’s the question….
    How many apples today are already GMO contaminated? I know, I know, apples should be organic to protect us (they’re at the top of the dirty dozen list), but seriously, all over the world, how many apples are already GMO? It’s scary to think about : (

    • Hi Ilana:

      There are no genetically engineered apples on the market in the US, although a Canadian biotech company has applied to sell an apple engineered to brown more slowly than other apples recently. I don’t know what the GMO sitch is like in Israel.

      All that said, I am not against GMO produce as long as it has documented proof of testing for environmental and health impacts. Breeders have with traditional methods slowly taken the flavor out of apples in favor of bright colors over the past few decades, perhaps genetic engineering can reverse some of those unfortunate changes?

      GMOs will be labelled in the US when they are put on sale. This has not happened yet because there is little or no GMO produce available. Concened consumers need to read those labels or encourage their governments to institute a labelling system to identify GMO produce.

      No one should be afraid of GMOs – they need to make sure that products are tested and reviewed with the same rigor as pharmaceuticals are BEFORE they hit the consumer markets, whether here or in the developing world.

  5. What a fun day for you, and what an interesting read! I especially love your top photo of the apples, that they are not picture perfect but honest looking. Thank you for the lesson!

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