Monday, October 5, 2009

Jefferson's Favorite

(heirloom apple display via century farm orchards)

My passion this week is Heirloom Apples. At work (as a Nutrition Educator at a non-profit), I'm having kids taste 10 different varieties of apples and talking about their origins, uses and propagation methods. My research into heirloom and antique cultivars has further steeled my opinions regarding homogenized corporate agriculture and the depth of the food security hole we're all in. A century ago, American home orchardists grew over 7,000 distinct apples. Today? Only 150 survive, 135 of which are not grown commercially. 15 kinds of apples. That's what you can buy in grocery stores: a pitiful handful of our great-great-grandparent's bounty.

To do our part in heirloom preservation, we're buying apple trees this winter. After much searching, reading and debating, we've chose Century Farm Orchards of Reidsville, NC. They grow a wide variety of old southern heirloom apples, are family run, get great reviews and seem to genuinely love rare apples. We're considering:

Arkansas Black: Originated in Arkansas around 1870. This apple is a good keeper and can best be described as “hard as a brick”. The tree is quite disease resistant. The fruit is a reddish-purple, almost black, with a hard, yellow, crisp flesh. The fruit begins ripening in late October and can be stored well into the winter months.

Newtown Pippin: Also called Albemarle Pippin or Yellow Newtown Pippin, this apple is said to have originated on Long Island, New York in 1666 as a seedling brought from England. According to Lee Calhoun in his book Old Southern Apples , it is “one of the truly great apples of the South, which grows to perfection in certain soils in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia..... most notably in the upper Piedmont and mountains.” More so than other apples, Newtown Pippin needs a loamy, friable soil to produce a high quality crop. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, this apple was highly prized and often exported to London where they brought premium prices. This apple was planted by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson at their respective estates. Fruit is large, skin yellow with a pink blush, and the flesh is yellow, firm, crisp, juicy, and subacid. Fruit ripens in October, and it stores quite well, often improving in flavor upon storage.

Esopus Spitzenberg: Originated in Esopus, New York before 1800. This apple was said to be Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple. Though a northern apple, it can produce quality fruit in most areas of the south. In numerous apple taste testings at Monticello in Virginia, it has consistently ranked high. Fruit is yellow with red. Its flesh is yellow, crisp, juicy, rich, and aromatic. Begins ripening in September.

Mary Reid: There are many apples that are known only to a small community or to a family. These varieties have been handed down through generations due to qualities that made each worth keeping. Mary Reid is one of these varieties. It was grown by several families in southern Caswell County, N.C. where I grew up. As a child, I thought everyone had a Mary Reid tree. It was partially through the efforts of my aunt that this tree still exists. It is a good eating apple, fantastic for cooking, and it dries well. It is medium in size and can vary on the same tree. Its skin is green with a definite red on the sunny side, and it sometimes has stripes. Its flesh is white, fine grained, and somewhat tart. It ripens from late July into early September.

Ashmead Kernal: This apple is not a southern apple, but it is an heirloom and I think it is so unusal that I had to place it somewhere on the web site. This apple originated in England around 1700 and was brought to the United States much later . It is a small apple that is completely covered with a thick russet. The flavor is shockingly sweet and acidic and could almost be decribed as "fireworks for the palate". However, the apples are eratic in size and small and its apprearance somewhat unusual, hence it will never become a commericial apple. But, it you have room for a great little apple, try the Ashmead Kernal. Ripens the last of September into October.

We may choose to plant two varieties per hole (instructions here). If so, we have room for four different cultivars. Since these trees will take about three years before they start to bear, getting them in this winter is a priority. Next season, we'll add pears, peaches, figs and cherries, but some old southern apples will do nicely for now.


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