By Maria Reidelbach
Apple growers are telling me that they’ve got bumper crops—this is the year to feast on apples, to adventure into apple orchards, to revel in apples, to discover the vast variety of apples, and to preserve apples to eat all winter long!
I’ve always been fascinated by all the different types of apples. My mother shared stories of apples that grew on their Appalachian farm in the 1920s where my grandfather specialized in rare varieties, from Banana apples with exotic aromas to the infamous Ben Davis, a winter “keeper” with the texture of a doorstop. Even in the 1960s we could see the depressions where full-grown apple trees purchased by the Charles Schwab family were unearthed and hauled by oxcart to their country estate.
Now I’m learning that there are over 7,500 cultivars (cultivated varieties) of apples—apples have the largest genome of any food plant, which provides for endless variation. And forget that old saying about the apple not falling far from the tree. If you plant the five seeds of any particular type of apple, like say, McIntosh, you’re likely to get five trees bearing little green apples. These resemble the original apples brought from Kazakhstan by Chinese and Roman traders over 2,000 years ago. Today, apples like that are referred to as “spitters” because they’re so hard and acidic, but back in the day they were far superior to the tiny bitter apples growing in the rest of the world. Among those trees, the ancients discovered genetic freaks with sweeter, juicier, redder, yellower or larger fruit. They even devised a way to clone them by taking cuttings of twigs or branches and grafting them to generic apple rootstock, a technique used to this day.
Amidst the flabbergasting variety of apples, it is ironic that in the United States today, 90 percent of the apples we eat come from only ten cultivars! Most of us have never tasted the many flavors, textures and aromas that apples can manifest.
Here in the Mid-Hudson Valley we can explore further. Ulster and Dutchess counties have over two dozen commercial orchards that grow more than 120 kinds of apples! Wightman Fruit Farm in Kerhonkson, a collection that is the life work of John and Lori Wightman, may be our most diverse local orchard, featuring almost 100 cultivars. Their trees include beautiful small red apples that were eaten in ancient Rome (Lady apples), culinary apples from the Renaissance (Cavil Blanc d’hiver), and modern apples—big, crisp and juicy (Goldrush). A walk among their trees, some literally bending with fruit, is a trip to paradise (without that Satanic serpent to worry about!). There are apples the size of golf balls and apples too big to hold in one hand. There are red, yellow, green, pink, orange and violet apples. Apples with stripes, dots, streaks and blushes, with white flesh, ivory flesh, yellow flesh and pink flesh. Shiny apples, frosted apples and russet apples. There are crazy trees with a different type of apple on each limb! The apples are sweet, tart, crisp, soft, dry, mealy and juicy. Each cultivar also has its own profile of phytonutrients with fantastic healthy benefits—many of which we don’t get from the top ten.
With so many apples, how does one choose? Pick an apple especially for your purpose!
1. Sunny autumn day snack, ideally eaten out of hand strolling down a dappled dirt road. I prefer a challenging apple that bites back a little—something more tart than sweet, but juicy and crisp, with a thin skin. My current love is the Chestnut Crabapple—a motley little thing, but so perfectly balanced in texture and flavor, beautiful enough for a Dutch still life. Esopus Spitzenbergs, said to be Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple, and hailing from the Ulster County town of Esopus, are also delightful.
2. Pie—it’s a challenge. You want a flavorful apple with lots of aroma, and one that keeps its shape inside that flakey crust. Golden Delicious have a nice balance of flavor and texture, Granny Smiths are great for firm texture, and Honeycrisps have decent flavor and cooked texture combo, too. I like to mix a variety and have had good luck with this scattershot approach.
3. Sinfully tempting apple. Eve’s Delight, a gigantic red and green striped apple.
4. Sauce. Use apples that are short on crisp texture but long on flavor, aroma and color. Macintosh, Mutsu (Crispin), Gravenstein, Rome and Ida Reds will cook down quickly. For best nutrition, flavor and color (and less work) keep the skins and purée the cooked sauce with a blender or food processor.
5. Tarte Tatin. The famous 19th century recipe from the French Tatin sisters. It’s easier to make than pie and the caramelized filling is at least as delicious. The strange, green, misshapen Cavil Blancs or one of the Pippins are traditional.
6. Slices with peanut butter. A match made in heaven! A tart and crisp apple like a Fuji with crunchy or creamy peanut butter is perfection.
7. Decorations. For wreaths and centerpieces, try Lady apples. They’re cute, small and aromatic.
8. Dried apples. Because skins get tougher and you don’t want to peel, use thin-skinned Spys or Gold Rushes.
9. Caramel apples. A thin-skinned, tart apple is a good counterpoint to gooey caramel. Try the super-tart Granny Smith, discovered by Maria Ann Smith in Australia in 1868.
10. Comfort apple to take to bed with you on a cold night. This would be a sweet, slightly soft, and not so juicy that you’ll drip on the sheets. Try Pristine, a beautiful apple with an orange cast.
11. Early adopter apple. There are new trademarked varieties that are in limited production like Snapdragon, RubyFrost and Sweet Tango, but the best new open-source type to taste, according to John Wightman, is the Goldrush.
12. Cider apple. The award-winning Hudson Valley Farmhouse Ciders are made with Winesaps and Dabinetts grown in Breezy Hill and Stone Ridge Orchards.
13. Keep the doctor away. The best strategy is to eat as wide a variety of apples as you can! And always eat the skin, where anthocyanins are concentrated. Choose the reddest of the red apples. Galas, Granny Smiths, Fujis, and even Red Delicious are nutritional standouts.
14. Appletini—city recipes call for apple schnapps, pucker or liqueur, but they’re also great made with local cider and vodka with a cinnamon stick swizzle. One last word of apple wisdom—always store your fresh apples in the refrigerator, as close to freezing as possible; the taste, texture and nutrition will last ten times longer.
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist living, working and eating in Accord, NY.
Orchards of Ulster and Dutchess
Check farm websites or call them for cultivars grown and their specific harvesting times. Most of the farms below are pick-your-own.
A & J Dembroski Orchard, Plattekill
Barton Orchards, Poughquag
Breezy Hill Orchard, Staatsburg*
Cedar Heights Orchard, Rhinebeck
Crist Bros Orchards, Walden
Dressel Farms, New Paltz
DuBois Farms, Highland
Fishkill Farms, Hopewell Junction
Greig Farm, Red Hook
Hurds Family Farm, Modena
Jenkins-Lueken Orchards, New Paltz
Kelder’s Farm, Accord
Lawrence Farms Orchards, Newburgh
Liberty View Farm, New Paltz
Maynard Farms, Ulster Park
Mead Orchards, Tivoli
Meadowbrook Farm, Wappingers Falls
Migliorelli Farm, Tivoli
Montgomery Place Orchards, Red Hook
Prospect Hill Orchards, Milton*
Rose Hill Farm, 1798, Red Hook
Saunderskill Farms, Accord
Stone Ridge Orchard, Stone Ridge
Terhune Orchards, Salt Point
Twin Star Orchards, New Paltz
Weed Orchards and Winery, Marlboro
Westwind Orchards (organic), Accord*
Wightman Fruit Farm, Kerhonkson
Wilklow Orchards, Highland
*NOFA certified organic.