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Carlson Orchards, Harvard, Massachusetts (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

A full crop of apples will soon be ripe at Carlson Orchards, Harvard, Massachusetts, but first comes the peaches. The orchard holds its 13th Annual Peach Festival this weekend. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Frank Carlson of Carlson Orchards, Harvard, Massachusetts (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Frank Carlson inspects Honeycrisp apples, which are still developing size and color. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

THERE IS NOTHING like a day of orchard hopping to get the juices going about the 2015 apple crop. We arrived at Carlson Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts, around noon on a beautiful August day. Frank Carlson, who runs the orchard with his two brothers, Bruce and Bobby, had Greek salads waiting for us at a picnic table, but he had to excuse himself several times to take phone calls or fill orders for peaches. At 72, Frank is always on the move, yet in between interruptions he patiently offers a steady stream of information and observations about apples and tree fruit.

The big news of the day was about dreaded hail. A series of vicious storms had swept across much of the region the day before, and growers were now looking for news of their neighbors, comparing notes, and looking for damage.

Just a few seconds of hail can injure an apple crop, shredding the leaves and nicking the fruit. A bad storm can wipe out an entire orchard in less than a minute. Fortunately Carlson Orchards was not hit, but there were scattered reports of hail in central Massachusetts.

It has been a good spring and summer growing season so far, but there are still several critical weeks before the main harvest begins in September. The growers can only hope that they get through this period without getting hit by heavy winds, which can knock apples off the tree, or hail.

But Carlson Orchards, like most of New England’s orchards, has an outstanding crop. We drove through the orchard and stopped to inspect Ginger Gold, Honeycrisp, and Macoun trees, all loaded with developing fruit. We followed the shrill note of a red-tailed hawk and watched it soar above the orchard. The raptor is welcome here, as it helps keep down the rodent population. Every living creature wants a bite of these apples, it seems, from deer and turkeys to mice, bugs, and bacteria.

Frank points out a sun spot on one apple, the fruit’s equivalent of sunburn. There are tiny nicks from hail on just a few apples, not enough to worry about. He cuts a third apple open to reveal some discoloring inside. These are minor flaws. All things considered, it appears to be an excellent crop.

Other than the threat of hail, the big unknowns now are size and color, for which the next month’s weather will play a critical role. Timely rain in the next few weeks will help the apples size properly. Cool nights are needed to draw the apple’s sugars closer to its skin, and to develop red color.

The trees are brimming with apples at Brookfield Orchards, North Brookfield, Massachusetts (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

The trees are brimming with apples at Brookfield Orchards, North Brookfield, Massachusetts, above and below left. (Bar Lois Weeks photos)

It is early August, but the earliest apples have already come and gone, starting with two rare ancient apples of Russian descent, Red Astrachan and Yellow Transparent. Their age and parentage are unknown, but they are believed to go back to at least the 17th century. Both apples ripen in late July, and they are gone in a few short weeks.

Red Astrachan’s mild, tart flavor is considered especially good in sauce and pies. Yellow Transparent is sweet with a hint of tartness. Both heirlooms can satisfy a craving for fresh apples if eaten soon after they are picked, but their flesh softens almost as quickly as a blueberry or peach.

A newer short-season apple called Vista Bella was being picked in late July at Red Apple Farm in Phillipston, Massachusetts. Developed at Rutgers University in 1956 from a mix of five rare apples (July Red, Melba, Sonora, Starr, and Williams), Vista Bella was not released commercially until 1974. Its flavor is mild, with a hint of raspberry.

Brookfield Orchards, North Brookfield, Massachusetts (Bar Lois Weeks photo)Almost as rare as the Russian apples are Lodi, a tart, yellow-green apple with soft flesh, developed from a cross of Montgomery and Yellow Transparent in New York state in 1924, and Quinte, a Canadian apple from 1964 resulting from a Red Melba-Crimson Beauty cross. Quinte is mostly red, firmer than Lodi, with a nicely balanced flavor.

Brookfield Orchards in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, has a small supply of both apples, and Diana Nydam, a member of the fifth generation of the farm started by Arthur Lincoln in 1918, saved a few of each for us to sample and photograph. Brookfield Orchards, too, was spared from hail and is looking at a better-than-average crop.

Two of the next apples to arrive on the scene, Jersey Mac and PaulaRed, are more widely available and keep better than the other varieties in this early season group. Despite its name, Jersey Mac does not have McIntosh heritage; its parentage includes Melba, Wealthy, Starr, and Red Rome.

Like Vista Bella, Jersey Mac was developed at Rutgers University in 1956, and released commercially in 1971. Jersey Mac has a mild, sweet flavor, with hints of strawberry. While it does not store well compared to later apples, it lasts longer than the first apples to appear, especially if kept cold.

PaulaRed is of similar vintage as Jersey Mac, discovered in Michigan in 1960 and released commercially in 1968. It is a chance seedling discovered near an orchard of McIntosh trees, and its sweet-tart flavor and red color with green highlights suggest that its parentage may include McIntosh.

The real Macs are just a few short weeks away.

*

IN BETWEEN visits to Carlson and Brookfield Orchards, we made a brief stop at J. P. Sullivan and Co. in Ayer, the biggest apple packing and shipping facility in New England. Big things are happening at J. P. Sullivan this summer, including a major solar installation and a brand new packing line that is scheduled to go online August 20.

This once-in-a-generation investment speaks volumes about the company’s confidence in the apple industry, and will give apples an even smoother, safer ride as they are cleaned, sorted, and packed for shipping to the region’s grocery stores.

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If you are considering orchard hopping this weekend, here are two events of note:

THE OPENING RECEPTION for the third Art In The Orchard, a biennial outdoor sculptural exhibit at Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton, Massachusetts, is this Saturday, August 15, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. This walking orchard tour features the works of more than 20 artists from around the region, whose sculptures are nestled in and among the apple trees. The sculptures will remain on view through October 15.

Carlson Orchards celebrates its 13th Annual Peach Festival Saturday, August 15, and Sunday, August 16, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine. There will be live music, hay rides to the peach orchards, product sampling, and a cookout. For more information, call 978-456-3916.

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WORKING ORCHARD MANAGER: Seeking a passionate, hardworking manager and farmer for a family owned and operated fruit orchard in central Connecticut that has been in business for more than 38 years. We grow apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, and plums for pick-your-own and wholesale on 33 acres with a country store, which is managed separately.

The position will lead and oversee the property, farming, and management of staff, as well as hands-on work that includes, but is not limited to, pruning, fertilizing, spraying, herbiciding, harvesting, grading, and running wholesale and pick-your-own business.

Experience in fruit growing is preferred but not necessary. On-site training from the owner of the orchard will be a large part of the on-boarding process to help you learn the details of the property and business. The owner will be your partner in management to ensure success, as we see this as a long-term career opportunity for you.

Thank you for your interest. Please call 203-213-8833 to learn more about this new position.

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TWO RECENT BOOKS by Russell Steven Powell, senior writer, and Bar Lois Weeks, executive director of the New England Apple Association, explore the history of apple growing in the region and look at the nation’s apple industry.

'Apples of New England' by Russell Steven PowellApples of New England (Countryman Press) is an indispensable resource for anyone searching for apples in New England orchards, farm stands, or grocery stores — or trying to identify an apple tree in their own backyard.

The book contains color photographs by Weeks and descriptions of more than 200 apples discovered, grown, or sold in New England, accompanied by notes about flavor and texture, history, ripening time, storage quality, and best use. Apples of New England offers practical advice about rare heirlooms and newly discovered apples.

Apples of New England includes chapters on the rich tradition of apple growing in New England, and on the “fathers” of American apples, Massachusetts natives John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”) and Henry David Thoreau. Apples of New England presents the apple in all its splendor: as a biological wonder, as a super food, as a work of art, and as a cultural icon.

America's AppleAmerica’s Apple (Brook Hollow Press) tells a rich and detailed story about apple growing in America, from horticulture to history to culinary uses. Powell writes about the best ways to eat, drink, and cook with apples. He describes the orchard’s beauty and introduces readers to some of the family farms where apples are grown today, many of them spanning generations.

America’s Apple looks at how America’s orchards are changing as a result of the trend toward intensive planting and the trademarking of new varieties, and what that means to consumers. Powell also writes about the fragile underpinnings of modern agriculture: the honeybees needed to pollinate the crop and the labor required to pick it, plus new and exotic pests and increasingly volatile weather.

Apples of New England and America’s Apple are available in hardcover at fine bookstores and orchards and online. America’s Apple is also available in paperback.

For more information, write to newenglandapples@verizon.net.

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WITH THE 2015 pick-your-own season upon us, now is a good time to review our four-minute video about how to prepare for your orchard visit:

Happy picking!

 

 

Red Apple Farm, Phillipston, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

The trees are loaded at New England’s apple orchards, like this one at Red Apple Farm, Phillipston, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

THE FIRST early season New England apples are already being picked!

To learn more, and to find out what we have planned this fall for the 80th anniversary of the nonprofit New England Apple Association, click on this link for the Summer 2015 McIntosh News.

Apple blossoms, Cold Spring Orchard, Belchertown, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

A little overnight moisture dampens the apple blossoms at Cold Spring Orchard, Belchertown, Massachusetts, May 12, 2015.

Apple blossoms, Atkins Farms, Amherst, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Atkins Farms, Amherst, Massachusetts, May 12, 2015.

THE BLOSSOMS are peaking now at many New England orchards, and close up or from a distance, it is a spectacular sight.

After a slow start, the bloom has advanced quickly in the recent stretch of summer-like weather — at Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, Massachusetts, for examples, the blossoms were at “match-tip” stage May 9, and many trees were in peak bloom just five days later on May 13. A little further north, McDougal Orchards in Springvale, Maine, reports that bloom is expected to peak there this weekend.

The orchard in bloom is a beautiful sight, but the time for viewing it is short, especially in southern New England locations. If you have a chance to get out to see bloom in person, now is the time.

To learn more about bloom and pollination, view the short video below, in which Frank Carlson of Carlson Orchards, Harvard, Massachusetts, explains why apple growers depend on honeybees during this critical stage.

Cortland apples, Green Mountain Orchards, Putney, Vermont (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Even as a new season begins, crisp New England apples like these Cortlands from Green Mountain Orchards, Putney, Vermont, are still available throughout the region.

While the blossoms on the trees now will eventually develop into the 2015 apple crop, the good news for consumers is that there are still plenty of New England apples available from the 2014 crop. Fresh from sealed rooms in controlled-atmosphere (“CA”) storage, the apples are nearly as crisp and just as flavorful as the day they were picked.

New England McIntosh, Cortland, and other varieties should be widely available for at least another month.

Photographs by Russell Steven Powell.

Apple blossoms, Green Mountain Orchards, Putney, Vermont (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Green Mountain Orchards, Putney, Vermont, May 13, 2015.

Apple blossoms, Green Mountain Orchards, Putney, Vermont (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Green Mountain Orchards, Putney, Vermont, May 13, 2015.

Apple blossoms, Alyson's Orchard, Walpole, New Hampshire (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Alyson’s Orchard, Walpole, New Hampshire, May 13, 2015.

Apple blossoms, Alyson's Orchard, Walpole, New Hampshire (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Alyson’s Orchard, Walpole, New Hampshire, May 13, 2015.

Homer Dunn, Alyson's Orchard, Walpole, New Hampshire. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Orchard Manager Homer Dunn takes a brief break from mowing at Alyson’s Orchard, Walpole, New Hampshire.

 

Apple blossoms, match-tip stage, Pine Hill Orchards, Colrain, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Blossoms were till at the “match-tip” stage at Pine Hill Orchards, Colrain, Massachusetts, May 9, 2015.

Apple blossoms, Pine Hill Orchards, Colrain, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Just five days later, the blossoms had rapidly unfurled at Pine Hill Orchards, May 13, 2015.

Apple blossoms, Pine Hill Orchards, Colrain, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Bloom was already peaking on some trees at Pine Hill Orchards, May 13, 2015.

Apple blossoms, Cold Spring Orchard, Belchertown, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

A sea of apple blossoms at Cold Spring Orchard, Belchertown, Massachusetts, May 12, 2015.

Apple blossoms, Atkins Farms, Amherst, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Atkins Farms, Amherst, Massachusetts, May 12, 2015.

Apple blossoms, Atkins Farms, Amherst, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Atkins Farms, Amherst, Massachusetts, May 12, 2015

 

 

Clarkdale Fruit Farms, Deerfield, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Green-tipped apple leaf buds beginning to emerge April 23 at Clarkdale Fruit Farms, Deerfield, Massachusetts. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

THE LONG WINTER and cool spring may be frustrating to heat-starved New Englanders, but it is good news for the region’s apple growers. An early spring — as occurred in 2010 and 2012 — forces a premature bloom in the apple orchard, putting the delicate flowers and nascent apples at risk of frost damage for an extended period.

This year is more normal, from an apple perspective. You can see the dramatic difference in our Spring 2015 McIntosh News, the quarterly newsletter of the New England Apple Association. A photograph taken at Belltown Hill Orchards in South Glastonbury, Connecticut, on April 5, 2012 (page 7), shows smudge pots beneath green grass and budded trees, a strategy for limiting frost damage.

This spring, photographs from Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Massachusetts, (page 1) nearly three weeks later on April 23, shows green-tip buds just emerging. Bloom is expected around May 10 or later at most of the region’s apple orchards.

There is plenty more in McIntosh News, including:

  • A recipe for Birdie’s Favorite Apple Brownies from Sentinel Pine Orchards, Shoreham, Vermont, on page 7; and
  • Links to our three-part video series on integrated pest management (IPM), an entertaining and educational look at how New England apple growers deal with bugs, bacteria, and other orchard threats (pages 2-4).

If you haven’t seen the series already, it is well worth it, and if you have already viewed them, they are well worth watching again at this critical time of year, when many orchard pests are re-emerging after a winter of dormancy.

The engaging and informative programs star apple growers John and Pete Rogers and Greg Parzych of Rogers Orchards in Southington, Connecticut, and Chuck Souther of Apple Hill Farm in Concord, New Hampshire.

We hope you enjoy the videos and newsletter, and we welcome your feedback and comments.

Russell Steven Powell

Editor

UNFAMILIAR APPLES WITH UN-APPLE LIKE NAMES have been appearing in my grocery store lately. Junami. Ambrosia. Envy. Kiku. Lady Alice. Pacific Rose. Now the latest, Autumn Glory.

These new apples have several things in common:

Their flavor ranges from sweet to very sweet.

Their flesh is firm to dense, ideal for shipping and storage.

They are rolled out strategically for a few brief months or weeks in late winter to compete with the better-known staple varieties available continuously since the fall harvest.

They have sophisticated marketing programs to promote them.

They are trademarked.

New England’s apple growers are not licensed to grow them.

These new apples are examples of a recent trend in apple breeding triggered by the wild success of Honeycrisp since its introduction in 1991. Developers of these trademarked varieties are hoping to replicate Honeycrisp’s meteoric rise, and forestall the potential weakening of the apple through overproduction.

A good Honeycrisp is an extraordinary apple, sweet with a little tang and an explosive, juicy crunch, justifying the premium price it commands in the marketplace. Its popularity has compelled growers everywhere to begin planting Honeycrisp, despite the fact that it can be a challenging apple to grow.

Honeycrisp does not store as well as some varieties, either. Its color is highly variable (from a solid reddish-pink to nearly all-yellow), and if not grown and harvested properly, its flavor can be watery or bland rather than crisp and explosive. There are many people in the industry who fear that the apple’s distinctiveness will eventually be compromised as too many Honeycrisp of uneven quality flood the market, and the premium price will suffer.

The financial stakes are high. Honeycrisp produced more than $10 million in revenue for its developer, the University of Minnesota, during its 20-year patent period, making it the university’s third most successful “invention” in its history. Honeycrisp today earns growers twice as much or more than some varieties. Who can blame growers for wanting to jump on the Honeycrisp bandwagon, or the developers hoping to find the next apple superstar?

TRADEMARKING NEW APPLES is seen as a way to maintain quality and avoid overproduction, and to return more money to the people and institutions that develop the fruit. The trademarked varieties are “managed” in selective “clubs,” requiring growers to pay licensing fees to grow the trademarked apple.

Some of the funds collected are earmarked for marketing, and each new “brand” comes with a carefully vetted name (as you see from the above list, often having little or nothing to do with apples), and is promoted through elaborate websites, advertising, and in-store promotions.

It may be sound in theory to manage supply to ensure high quality and prices, and the licensing fees are an innovative way to ensure that the varieties are given a fair chance in the marketplace. But the trend toward trademarking penalizes New England’s medium to small orchards, which to date have been excluded from joining the clubs or cannot afford them.

In some cases the trademark is owned by a single company, such as Rainier Fruit Company in Washington state for Lady Alice, or controlled by a region or state, such as New York, where a growers cooperative this year released two new commercial varieties, SnapDragon and RubyFrost. None of these apples currently can be grown in New England.

THE JURY IS OUT on the value of the trademarking trend, but ultimately its success will depend on the quality of the apple. To date, that means New England growers have little to worry about — these new apples add little besides novelty to the experience of eating an apple. Give me a tangy McIntosh or Cortland at any time of year over any of these new, overly sweet apples.

Most of these new, trademarked varieties seem destined for the same fate as the many now rare or extinct apples discovered in New England in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, for similar reasons. Most of the early heirlooms disappeared from the marketplace due to their mild, bland flavor. Perfectly good apples, they simply lacked distinction. Many of these varieties were esteemed more because they stored well rather than due to their flavor, and they gradually lost popularity or disappeared altogether with the advent of refrigeration.

The new trademarked varieties to date have similarly undistinguished flavors (although too sweet rather than mild), and their repetitive firm textures, valuable for shipping and handling, adds little to their bland, sugary taste.

I have nothing against a sweet apple (although I usually prefer one that’s got some tang or bite). But the sweet apples commonly grown in New England, like Honeycrisp, Gala, or Jonagold, retain some character, and still taste like apples. Many of the new, trademarked varieties are nothing but sweetness, generic as bubble gum or cotton candy.

These apples are a novel choice to satisfy a sweet tooth, and healthier than a candy bar, of course, or a slice of cake. The best ones are not overly cloying, and some are at least juicy. But anyone looking for apple flavor is likely to be disappointed by most of these new entries. And they can’t be grown on New England soil.

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TWO OTHER NEW APPLES appearing in New England grocery stores for the first time this winter are the first U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved genetically modified (GMO) apples, Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden. Like the trademarked apples above, Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden apples are not grown in New England.

The two varieties, developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., of Summerland, British Columbia, Canada, were developed to be “nonbrowning” to increase a sliced apple’s visual appeal when exposed to air, making them more attractive in uncooked foods like salads. The Arctic apples achieve this through the insertion in the apple’s DNA of polyphenol oxidase, a gene found in potatoes.

The subject of GMOs remains controversial, and the USDA in 2013 and 2014 received thousands of responses during the public comment period on the petition to regulate Arctic apples. Baby food manufacturer Gerber announced in 2013 that it had no plans to use Arctic apples, and the fast-food restaurant chain McDonald’s soon followed suit.

While Arctic apples “are unlikely” to pose a plant risk to agriculture and other plants, according to the USDA’s February 13 announcement of their approval, apple industry leaders have been concerned about the Arctic’s potential to harm consumer perception of their fruit.

“We have been anticipating this decision and preparing to answer consumer questions about what their choices will be — now and down the road,” says Wendy Brannen, director of consumer health and public relations for the United States Apple Association in Vienna, Virginia. “We want to make clear that all other apples currently in stores are non-GMO and will remain available for consumers to continue buying, including non-GMO varieties that are naturally low browning.”

“The New England Apple Association supports science-based biotechnology that protects consumer health, the environment, and the marketplace,” according to a statement by the nonprofit’s board of directors. “At this time, there is no demand for GMO apples, and no consensus about GMO produce. No New England growers are planting GMO apples to our knowledge.”

Consumer demand will determine the future of GMO apples in the marketplace, says Brannen. “We see our job in the meantime being to quell people’s concerns and continue encouraging them to eat all U.S.-grown apples as part as a healthy, nutritious lifestyle.”

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'Apples of New England' by Russell Steven PowellTO LEARN MORE about the history of apple growing in New England — including how to identify a trademarked from a locally grown apple — with photographs and descriptions of more than 200 varieties discovered, grown, or sold in the region, check out Apples Of New England (Countryman Press, 2014), by Russell Steven Powell, with photographs by Bar Lois Weeks.

Spencer apples, Brookfield Orchards, North Brookfield, Massachusetts (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Spencer apples, Brookfield Orchards, North Brookfield, Massachusetts. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

HERE IS a link to our special winter edition of McIntosh News, the quarterly newsletter of the New England Apple Association:

winter 2015 McIntosh News

The issue features a photo essay of the New England apples booth in the Massachusetts Building at the Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”) by Executive Director Bar Lois Weeks. The 17-day fair attracted more than 1.5 million visitors this year in the middle of the fresh harvest, from September 12 through September 28.

Check it out — you might recognize yourself or someone you know. In addition to people, the photographs show stellar examples of the fall apple crop, and serve as a reminder to ask for New England grown apples in your supermarket. They should be available in most places until late spring, at least.

My favorite apple

Golden Delicious, from Lanni Orchards in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, is an outstanding all-purpose apple. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Golden Delicious, from Lanni Orchards in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, is an outstanding all-purpose apple. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

NEXT TO “What is the best pie apple?” the question I am asked the most — and which I frequently ask others — is “What is your favorite apple?” It’s not an easy question to answer. It’s not something you can even ask about a strawberry or a banana, and there are many ways to slice it.

These are things I consider:

  • Flavor – sweet to tart
  • Juiciness
  • Texture – tender, crisp, or dense
  • Physical beauty – striking color, distinctive shape
  • Storage quality
  • Character – some apples gain complexity and sweetness over time
  • Early, mid-, or late-season
  • Availability – some apples for only a few weeks
  • Quality – according to season and region
  • Heirlooms or new apples

No other fruit locates us in place and time as apples do, or has the power to remind us of important people in our lives. On a macro scale, apple myths and stories serve as historical milestones across cultures and centuries. From this fruit we glean attitudes toward commerce, cooking, diet, and landscape, as well as religion and science, from Adam and Eve to the Golden Apple, from Sir Isaac Newton to Johnny Appleseed, each with its particular context and meaning.

Apples continue to leave cultural footprints today, in New York City, otherwise known as “The Big Apple” since the 1920s, and in commerce: the Beatles’ Apple Record label in 1968, and the Apple computer company in 1976. Apple Computer carries its apple imagery one step further, naming its iconic personal computer after New England’s iconic apple: McIntosh, or simply Mac.

On a micro level, many people have strong personal and emotional ties to apples, a grandfather or uncle who owned an orchard, perhaps, or a youthful job sorting, picking, or selling apples at a neighbor’s. Apples are uniquely tangible legacies of our mothers and grandmothers through the knowledge of a favorite pie apple and hand-scrawled recipes on ancient index cards stained with egg white threads and traces of cinnamon.

Cortland apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Cortland apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Apples have many associations for us, culturally and as individuals, and my personal experience influences my favorites. I grew up with McIntosh and Cortland, and Northern Spy is my mother’s favorite pie apple. My friend uses nothing but Cortland in his pies for 25 years. I’m sure his daughter has taken notice.

These associations help explain why every apple has its fans: an apple may evoke warm memories of places as well as people, adding depth to its eating appeal.

Black Oxford apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Black Oxford apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Jonathan, a beautiful red heirloom from New York, is a favorite of a friend from the Midwest, where it has long been popular, and much to his chagrin it is not widely grown in New England. Black Oxford, despite its distinctive color and good eating qualities, is rarely found outside of its native Maine.

It may be that a variety has superior flavor only when grown in certain soils and climates. Wolf River is a favorite of many Wisconsin natives, where the apple is also native; in New England it is typically valued more for its exceptionally large size than its mild flavor.

Propagated through grafting, apples are direct descendants of the original tree of the variety, sometimes centuries old; eating one is like ingesting a bit of history, a living reminder of the rural, agrarian roots of now-urban settings like Roxbury, Dedham, and Wilmington, Massachusetts, or Hartford, Connecticut.

With names like Tinmouth, Bethel, and Boxford, apples continue to celebrate small towns in New England’s rural countryside, too, or else perpetuate the memory of a farmer, landowner, or statesman, such as the Massachusetts apple Baldwin, named for a distinguished war veteran, public servant, and civil engineer, Col. Loammi Baldwin.

An apple’s history, no matter how illustrious, does not make it taste any better. Still, knowing its unusual or local story can influence my choice. 

THIS LONG PREAMBLE to my list of favorites is necessary to explain why I can only narrow it down to eight apples.

I could happily survive on dozens of other varieties:

Akane apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Akane apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Akane and Sansa are two of the best of the early season apples. I’ve rarely met a russeted apple I didn’t like, such as Roxbury Russet, America’s oldest named variety (1635).

It is hard to imagine a better all-purpose apple than Cortland or the sweeter Golden Delicious, or a more interesting apple than the orange russet, Ashmead’s Kernel.

Some apples have vintage years, like fine wines. Two years ago, Ginger Gold from Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, Massachusetts, were the best I ever had; last year it was Shamrock from the University of Massachusetts Cold Spring Orchard in Belchertown.

Gravenstein apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Gravenstein apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

This year, two relatively hard-to-find apples were particularly noteworthy: Gravenstein, from Atkins Farms in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Suncrisp, from Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner, Maine.

Suncrisp apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Suncrisp apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Both were exceptionally crisp and juicy with a tantalizing, lemony tart flavor and looks to match. Gravenstein’s red and green blend like a watercolor, Suncrisp’s rich yellow has beautiful pink cheeks or stripes.

But none of these fine apples make my list.

Cox's Orange Pippin apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Cox’s Orange Pippin apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

MY THREE FAVORITE heirlooms are Cox’s Orange Pippin (England, 1825), Baldwin (Massachusetts, 1740), and Northern Spy (Connecticut, 1840).

Cox’s Orange Pippin’s complex flavor is the best of any apple I have tasted. Cox’s Orange Pippin is hard to find, and orchards sell out by December.

Northern Spy apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Northern Spy apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

After dominating apple production in the Northeast for more than a century, Baldwin and Northern Spy were surpassed in the 1930s by McIntosh and Cortland, which are easier to grow. Fortunately, you can still find these heirlooms at many orchards, and because they store so well, supplies often last through December.

Baldwin apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Baldwin apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

From an eating standpoint, both Baldwin and Northern Spy are superior apples, and they are especially good in baking: large, firm, and they hold their shape. Northern Spy in particular has been a favorite pie apple for generations of bakers. Baldwin and Northern Spy are good eaten fresh, too, lively, spicy, with some tartness.

In general I like my apple to have a little bite, some tang, a degree of tartness. It goes with being a New Englander, the complex flavors analogous to living with the four seasons. An apple with some spiciness or tartness broadens my experience of flavor.

I like a sweet apple now and then, though, and there are some good choices, like the russeted, pear-flavored Hudson’s Golden Gem (Oregon, 1931). But I put Honeycrisp (Minnesota, 1991) at the top of my sweet apple list, followed by Gala (New Zealand, 1934).

Honeycrisp apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Honeycrisp apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Honeycrisp has a distinctive, light-crisp texture that explodes with more juice than any other apple. It is the biggest new variety to hit the apple industry in the past 50 years, and its success has apple breeders around the globe scrambling to develop the next pomological superstar.

Gala apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Gala apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Gala is the Golden Retriever of apples, ubiquitous, not the most complex creature but irresistibly sweet, and beautiful to behold. With its pear-like taste, Gala is a more flavorful alternative to the sweet, bland Red Delicious. Both apples have a distinctive conical shape, but Gala’s color is more complex than the monochromatic Red Delicious, turning gradually deeper shades of yellow, red, and orange in storage.

Macoun apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Macoun apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Two fresh-eating apples on my favorites list are Macoun (New York, 1923), and Jonagold (New York, 1968). Macoun has some of the pleasing tartness of its McIntosh parent but a crisper texture, and a complex, spicy flavor with hints of strawberry. I love its wine-red color and boxy shape.

Jonagold apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Jonagold apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Jonagold has a light-crisp, juicy flesh similar to Honeycrisp but not as sweet, with just enough tartness to give it depth. Jonagold happens to be beautiful as well, a fiery blend of gold and red from its Golden Delicious and Jonathan parents. Popular at orchards and at farm stands — and especially in Europe — Jonagold curiously has not yet caught on in most of New England’s supermarkets.

McIntosh apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

McIntosh apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

I must include McIntosh (Canada, 1801), available throughout the year. McIntosh is the standard, the staple, so consistently good and widely available that I sometimes take it for granted. But there are good reasons that this durable heirloom, is New England’s most popular apple.

McIntosh has great flavor and aroma, refreshingly crisp and tart when first picked and mellowing over time, a little sweeter and juicier in storage. It’s great for fresh eating.

McIntosh adds exceptional flavor to almost any baked good. Some people don’t like the fact that its tender flesh tends to break down when baked, but this is not always the case, and it can be ameliorated by mixing in a few firmer varieties. The ingredients for Peg’s New England Apple Squares include cornflakes in the filling, which soak up excess juice and contributes to the pastry’s firmness.

Those are my choices, a favorite apple for all purposes, and for all seasons.

And you? What is your favorite apple?

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'Apples of New England' by Russell Steven Powell

APPLES OF NEW ENGLAND (Countryman Press, 2014), a history of apple growing in New England, includes photographs and descriptions of more than 200 apple varieties discovered, grown, or sold in the region. Separate chapters feature the “fathers” of American wild apple, Massachusetts natives John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”) and Henry David Thorea; the contemporary orchard of the early 21st century; and rare apples, many of them photographed from the preservation orchard at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts.

Powell is senior writer for the nonprofit New England Apple Association after serving as its executive director from 1998 to 2011. Photographer Bar Lois Weeks is the Association’s current executive director.

Available in bookstores everywhere.

'America's Apple' cover

AMERICA’S APPLE, (Brook Hollow Press, 2012) Powell’s and Weeks’s first book, provides an in-depth look at how apples are grown, eaten, and marketed in America, with chapter on horticulture, John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), heirloom apples, apples as food, apple drinks, food safety insects and disease, labor, current trends, and apple futures, with nearly 50 photographs from orchards around the country.

The hardcover version lists for $45.95 and includes a photographic index of 120 apple varieties cultivated in the United States. America’s Apple is also available in paperback, minus the photograph index, for $19.95, and as an ebook.

Available at numerous bookstores and orchards, and Silver Street MediaAmazon.comBarnes and Noble, and other online sources. For quantity discounts, email newenglandapples@verizon.net.