Have you ever wondered: that apple a day, the apple of our eye, the one that doesn’t fall far from the tree … just what kind of apple is it?
In Rowan Jacobsen’s new book, “Apples of Uncommon Character” (Bloomsbury, $35), we see their stunning variety, with Jacobsen spotlighting more than 100 types of apples, from 18th century favorites still available today, to the latest trademarked creations. He tells the background and the tastes of the Belle de Boskoops and Northern Spys that can be found at farmers markets and local UPicks, but also the ever-popular Red Delicious and Granny Smith.
Jacobsen and the book’s photographer, Seattle-based Clare Barboza, will speak on “The Apples You Never Knew About” at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 5 at Town Hall. Cost: $5, with Seattle writer Langdon Cook moderating.
The author’s introduction to the vast world of apples came after buying a Vermont farmhouse with four acres of meadows lined with unfamiliar apples whose tastes and diversity led him to see he’d been “missing out.” What he found — as most amateurs looking for background on vintage varieties know — was that little information was available beyond summaries in nursery catalogues. He set out on a search for more, describing flavors and textures as if he were tasting wines, tracing lineages through the “ancient” compendiums that had been common in pioneer days, and learning stories from sources like the “fruit explorers” who love to seek out missing varieties and bring them to new life. The thousands of apple types supporting frontier farms in the 1800s, he learned, had collapsed in the late 20th- century to just six major varieties, which dominated the American market.
With Washington as the country’s largest apple producer, our state’s orchards have a strong presence in any apple collection. Washington has traditionally been better-known for “big orchards that would just concentrate on a couple of really commercially viable varieties,” Jacobsen said. In decades past that was the Red Delicious, making up 75 percent of the state’s apple crops until consumers caught on that the gorgeous thick-skinned fruit (he calls it “a zombie apple”) was growing more and more tasteless. Now local growers have shifted to newer favorites like Honeycrisps and proprietary varieties like the Pinova, grown exclusively for Wenatchee-based Stemilt Growers.
Jacobsen sees the state’s overall focus changing too. “Consumers are totally open to trying apples they’ve never heard of,” he pointed out, “and to trying cider, and I really feel like the market has cracked wide open now.”
In Jacobsen’s research, he came across new-to-him discoveries like the Chestnut Crab, which he went “bonkers” for and wound up grafting in his own orchards. “It’s got that kind of crisp snappiness like a Honeycrisp, but it’s smaller… and it’s rich and kind of caramelized, brown-sugary tasting … and it’s gorgeous. It’s not an old apple, it came out of one of the breeding programs and went nowhere. I hear apple geeks talk about it with these reverential terms.” He also devoted time to “summer” apples like the delicate Yellow Transparent, an unusual concept in a market accustomed to thinking of apples as a fall storage crop. “That whole experience, you’re going ‘Holy cow, this apple is ready to eat,’ we’ve kind of lost that seasonality. There was a real celebration to it back in the day when the first Yellow Transparents came in. I planted a couple of those just to get that.”
Part of the very fascination with the fruit, for him, was that there is no other tree quite like the apple, “metamorphosing endlessly” on its own to the point where humans “haven’t teased new things out of the apple so much as pruned its potential.” There are other fruit and nut trees that, like apples, don’t come true from seeds (planting a McIntosh seed, for instance, will most likely not lead to a McIntosh tree.) All of those other types of trees, though, only survive with lots of human intervention.
“What is really unique about the apple — and the more I work with it the more remarkable I realized it was — the apple, it doesn’t need us.”
Interested in different apple varieties? Here are a few excerpts from Jacobsen’s descriptions of some varieties available in the Pacific Northwest: Ambrosias have a banana scent and flesh that’s “mildly sweet, passingly tart, and tropical like one of those modern fusion juices.” Ashmead’s Kernel, which stores well, “pairs intense sweetness with gumsearing acidity.” Kingston Black, a cider apple, is “the truffle of the cider world,” offering, when fermented, “a perfect balance of sweet, tart, bitter and savory saddle sweat, like prosciutto.”
To taste a sampling of unusual apple varieties, also check out farmers markets, particularly the apple celebration at the Lake City Farmers Market at 3 p.m. Sept. 25, N.E. 125th St. and 28th Ave. N.E., Seattle. Several UPick farms offer many varieties. We’re big fans of Jones Creek Farm in Sedro-Woolley, with more than 200 types of trees and weekend UPicks through the fall, online at skagitvalleyfruit.com (and generally found at the Broadway and University District farmers markets.)
Edited Sept. 3 to add: As noted in the comments below, the Friends of Piper’s Orchard are holding their 8th annual “Festival of Fruit” Saturday, September 13 at the Environmental Learning Center in Carkeek Park, which is steps from Piper’s Orchard. Details are online here.