PERHAPS THE MOST OVERLOOKED APPLES are the russets, undoubtedly due to their dull, rough-looking skin. It is a shame, as they are some of the most flavorful apples anywhere. Several varieties are especially prized for cider.
Russeting occurs naturally in many varieties, but is seen as a defect in others. It may appear on a portion of each apple, or cover its entire surface. Many of the fully russeted varieties are medium to small in size, limiting their mass appeal in today’s world of super-sized portions.
Most russets are excellent keepers, but therein lies a source of their commercial decline: as storage techniques improved a century ago, the russets fell out of favor, undoubtedly hastened by consumer preference for a shiny red (or gold or green) apple. But if you can set aside the aesthetic demand for a uniformly smooth and shiny skin, your taste buds will be richly rewarded.
We’ve previously sung the praises of several russeted varieties, such as Ashmead’s Kernel and Hudson’s Golden Gem, both of which are excellent cider apples. The distinctive variable russeting against a red background on varieties like Orleans Reinette can be striking in appearance.
We admit that most people consider the Knobbed Russet unattractive, if not downright ugly. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we consider the russets to be stunning in their subtle coloration and compact shape. We feature five here: the aforementioned Knobbed, plus Golden Russet, Pitmaston Pineapple, Pomme Grise, and Roxbury Russet. They are linked not only by their coppery brown exteriors and intense flavors, but also by their rich histories and colorful names.
GOLDEN RUSSET is a firm, sweet apple with a fine-grained yellow flesh. It had its beginnings in western New York state in the 1800s, where its exceptional sweetness made it a favorite with cider-makers. Golden Russet is still considered to be one of the very best varieties for cider, but it is good for fresh eating and cooking as well.
KNOBBED RUSSET is the strangest looking apple in our experience. It sports a gnarly but edible skin covered with warts and welts. But it is more than a novelty. Like the frog that became a prince when kissed, the Knobbed Russet’s character is magically transformed when bitten into. Its bold flavor is superior, strong and earthy, rich and sugary. It has a firm and dense, crisp golden flesh. Also known as Knobby Russet, it was first grown in Sussex, England, in 1819.
PITMASTON PINEAPPLE is a small, juicy apple good for both fresh-eating and cider. It has a sweet, nutty flavor with a hint of honey, and a pineapple taste that gives the variety its name. Pitmaston Pineapple originated in the town of Pitmaston, near Worcester, England, in the late 1700s, and was presented to the London Horticultural Society in 1845 by Mr. Williams of Pitmaston. Its parentage includes Golden Pippin.
POMME GRISE has many similarities with Pitmaston Pineapple: it is a small, round, juicy apple with thick, tough skin lightly covered with brown russeting. Its pale yellow flesh is firm, crisp, and aromatic, with a unique nutty, spicy flavor, making it a popular choice for cider-making. Also known as Gray Apple, Pomme Grise originated in Canada, and was widely grown in New York’s St. Lawrence valley in the 1800s.
ROXBURY RUSSET is America’s oldest cultivated apple variety, first grown in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1635. This exquisitely flavored heirloom has had a host of names over the years, including Belpre Russet, Boston Russet, Hewe’s Russet, Marietta Russet, Putnam Russet, Shippen’s Russet, Sylvan Russet, Warner Russet, and — our favorite — Leather Coat.
Roxbury Russet has a coarse, crispy yellow-green flesh. Its spicy-tart flavor is as good for fresh-eating as it is for making a fine syrupy cider. Its parentage is unknown.
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IF YOU ARE FORTUNATE ENOUGH to find some russets at your local orchard or grocery store, here is a recipe that emphasizes their rich taste. Most russets are slow to brown when sliced compared to many varieties, making them especially good in salads.
French Apple-Pear Salad
2 medium or 3 small New England apples, such as Roxbury Russet, halved and cored
2 pears, halved and cored
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 T lemon juice
1/2 t vanilla
1/4 c walnut or canola oil
salt to taste
2 t tarragon
1/2 c toasted walnuts
Brie or bleu cheese
Slice fruit into long spears and place in a medium bowl with celery. Whisk lemon juice, vanilla, oil, and salt. Pour dressing over fruit. Top with tarragon, walnuts, and cheese.
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FROM SHEEP’S NOSE TO McINTOSH TO ROXBURY RUSSET, the 2012 New England Apple wall calendar is a great way to learn about the region’s apples and keep the beauty of the orchard nearby year-round.
Each month features a different New England apple variety and orchard. The 12”x12” commercially printed calendar makes an ideal gift for the apple lovers on your list.
To order your calendar, send $12.95 ($9.95 plus $3.00 shipping) to New England Apples, P. O. Box 41, Hatfield, MA 01038. Make checks out to New England Apple Association. We’ll send your calendar out within 24 hours of receiving your order.