As Izekiel Goodband spoke about various varieties of heirloom apples in a tightly packed room full of people eager for apple knowledge and apple tasting, I couldn’t help but compare this event to wine tasting at say a Napa Valley vineyard. An understanding of (or the lack thereof) a specialized vocabulary very quickly set apart those in the know and the lay people. At vineyards visitors quickly learn words like “bouquet” and the “legs” of the wine but at Scott Farm, Izekiel was throwing around words like “russeting”, “blush” and “bloom”. For a novice like me, I had the most to learn.
Every year Scott Farm, located in Dummerston, Vermont just outside Brattleboro, celebrates Heirloom Apple Day on the Sunday just before Indigenous People’s Day (sometimes still known as Columbus Day) and people come from all over New England to learn about apples, taste apples, pick their own apples and buy many of the pre-made apple products such as cider and pies. I came for the tasting.
To be honest, I wasn’t particularly fond of Izekiel as I found that his priority was to entertain and he would do anything to get a laugh. This, unfortunately, included making fun the English (making fun of their teeth) as well as pigs, calling them stupid and making lots of bacon jokes, in which I have never found humor. While I did not like the messenger, I did appreciate the knowledge and it was clear that Izekiel, a self-proclaimed pomologist (a fruit expert), was indeed very knowledgeable about everything apple-related from the historical to the practical.
The History of the Apple
According to Izekiel, the apple originated in what is now called Kazakstan and my follow-up research suggests that there is indeed strong evidence to support this claim. Interestingly, Almaty, Kazakstan’s largest city, translates to “full of apples” in Kazakh, which is linguistically very close to Turkish. While visiting Turkey, Mindy and I often ordered alma chai (apple tea – very delicious by the way). The apple spread to Europe, like so many other foods, through the Silk Road and naturally different varieties began in various parts of Europe.
Starting in the 1600’s Europeans began emigrating to North America bringing apples with them and again, due to the effects of cross pollination, even more varieties were cultivated. Given the prevalence of water-born diseases during the Colonial Period (1607-1776) of the United States it was considered safer to drink apple cider, given that the outside of apples is covered with yeast. It is believed that by the 1800’s there were anywhere from 16 to 18 thousand kinds of apple in New England alone, a place where apple cider traditions continue until this day. Not surprisingly, during the Prohibition Era in the US (1920-1933), thousands of kinds of apple died out, further contributing to the specialness of those varieties that did survive the dry years.
Preserving a particular variety of apple involves cloning, which means taking a cutting from a tree and splicing it to another tree. It is entirely possible and even frequent to see a tree with one variety on the bottom and another on the top.
We tried nine heirloom apples, all stemming from various places in North America or Western Europe. The first apple we tasted was called the Esopus Spitzenburg which originated in upstate New York in the early 1700’s. We were told that this apple is recommended for baking, cider and even eating out of hand.
The second apple, called Reine des Reinette, originated in Normandy, France in the late 1700’s, is a green apple with red blush (flesh inside) and light russeting (extra layer of cells on the skin) and has a high acid, high sugar content giving it a spritely flavor. (This kind of language is precisely how those-in-the-know talk about apples, so much different than the red, green or yellow varieties of apples that I was aware of when I first arrived at the farm.) Reine des Reinette is recommended for alcoholic drinks, such as hard cider.
We moved on to the Hudson’s Golden Gem, which are about 100 years old, originating from Oregon and Washington state. This apple is green with russeting and because it has low acidity and a pear flavor to it, the Hudson’s Golden Gem is sweet, making it a perfect apple for simply eating right off the tree.
Our next apple, called the Cox’s Orange Pippin named after the Englishman Richard Cox, dates back to the early 1700’s and is known for its orange skin. Ezekiel recommended this apple in baking, cooking and juicing, but I must admit that I did not care for the taste. The French apple we tried next, called Orleans Reinette, was described as a handsome apple with high acid and sugar content and was recommended only for baking.
Our tasting was brought back to New England with the Blue Pearmain, a large apple with bloom (cloudy surface), thick skin and lots of pectin. It had a mild flavor and, really enjoying this apple, I could easily see why it was recommended for cider. Apparently, Henry David Thoreau was also fond of this apple – I guess great minds think alike. 😉
One of my favorite apples of the day was the Ashmeads Kernel, which originated in England and a bit tart (Ezekiel described it as spritely). In my opinion the Ashmeads Kernel is the perfect apple because of its versatility, from eating off the tree to baking. It is also recommended as a dessert apple and for cider, especially hard cider given the large amount of tannins and sugar.
The first reference to the Roxbury Russet was in 1634 in Roxbury, Massachusetts. This dense apple is apparently remarkable in that it is easy to store, but I liked it for its hint of nutmeg. The final apple we tasted was the Black Oxford which dates back to the 1790’s in Paris, Maine, which lies in Oxford County. I enjoyed the esthetic of this apple the most with the purple tones in the deep red blush. Apparently, there were also notes of sweet corn, vanilla and cane sugar but all this was lost on me.
Another interesting fact about the history of apples that was mentioned during the lecture was regarding the Medlar Apple, which apparently made it’s way into Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It left me wondering what other classics include discussion about a particular variety of apple.
Practical Information about Apples
In addition to the history lesson and the tasting, we were also given some practical information that I thought I would pass along to you. Apparently, it is important to refrigerate your apples or put them in a cold root cellar. The exception to this is the Quince which has a very thick skin. Izekiel further recommended that apples be placed in a plastic bag with holes in it. For those of you considering making your own apple pie or apple cider, be sure to use a mix of varieties of apples for the best flavor and there is apparently an art to which varieties work best with each other when baking and making cider. Seasoned bakers and cider makers have baked and pressed many an apple combination before finding just the right one.