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Fresh apples for sampling at Clarkdale Fruit Farms, Deerfield, Massachusetts, during Franklin County CiderDays. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Fresh apples for sampling at Clarkdale Fruit Farms, Deerfield, Massachusetts, during Franklin County CiderDays  (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

TWICE A DAY at least I reach into a paper bag in my refrigerator and pull out an apple. It could be any color, size, or shape — I like to be surprised. I take an apple on my morning and afternoon walks, where it can be savored in its natural environment, without distraction.

An apple is perfect for walking, clean and compact, fitting neatly in my pocket, giving me a sweet energy boost and fresh juice along the way. Apples work on all the senses, beautiful to behold (especially in contrast with November’s muted landscape) and lightly perfuming the air, their smooth, round or conical shape weighing comfortably in my hand.

While the last New England apples have been picked, the bounty of the harvest will last until late spring, at least. During the fresh harvest I was able to amass a wide variety of my favorite apples from around New England, which will supply my walks at least through Thanksgiving.

From my orchard visits in October I picked up small bags of Baldwin, Northern Spy, Rhode Island Greening, plus Honeycrisp, Jonagold, and McIntosh. I had some Gala, Empire, Macoun, and a few Silken left over from our booth at the Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”) in September.

One bag is filled with heirloom varieties like Esopus Spitzenburg, Ribston Pippin, and Roxbury Russet. There are a few loose stragglers on the refrigerator’s shelves, a Golden Delicious one day, Suncrisp the next. I never know what I will retrieve when I reach in.

Jonagold apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Jonagold apple            (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Monday I ate a Jonagold in the morning, and a Macoun in the afternoon — two of my favorite fresh eating apples. There are mixed reports about the storage qualities of Jonagold, a 1968 cross of Golden Delicious and Jonathan, but this one, purchased a month ago, held up beautifully, crisp and loaded with juice, with its characteristic flavor, sweet with a little tartness.

Macoun apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Macoun apple                  (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

After a similar time in storage, the Macoun, the offspring of McIntosh and Jersey Black parents introduced in 1923, remained crisp, and its flavor was rich and complex, with its spicy, strawberry notes more pronounced than ever.

Tuesday I ate two heirlooms, McIntosh from Canada (1801), and Northern Spy (1840 New York, from seeds from Connecticut).

McIntosh apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

McIntosh apple             (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

The Mac was outstanding, early in its flavor “arc” that sees the apple gradually sweeten and soften over several months. It had been two months since this McIntosh was harvested, and much of the apple’s tartness remained intact, giving it a rich flavor as beguiling as fresh-picked and spicier, more complex.

Northern Spy apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Northern Spy apple         (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

The pink Northern Spy was huge, firm, and juicy, its initial tartness gradually transforming into something broader and deeper. It is easy to see why this apple was a favorite for nearly a century despite being somewhat unreliable and difficult to grow, as it stores well, and is equally good for fresh eating and baking.

I began Wednesday with a giant Honeycrisp that had been sitting in the crisper drawer for about two months.

Honeycrisp apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Honeycrisp apple             (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

While still juicy, its flavor was unexceptional, certainly nothing like what the apple has become famous for since it hit the marketplace in 1991, from a 1961 cross of Keepsake and an unnamed seedling at the University of Minnesota.

Some Honeycrisp store better than others, depending on where they were grown and when they were picked, but it is an apple that is appreciably better eaten fresh. A good Honeycrisp can also be almost solid pink-red in color, much like Northern Spy.

Baldwin apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Baldwin apple                 (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

I ended the day with a Baldwin, one of New England’s oldest varieties, dating back to 1740 in Wilmington, Massachusetts. Baldwin was the region’s most popular apple for nearly a century before McIntosh’s ascendancy in the early 1900s.

The Baldwin I ate was the crispest and tartest of the six apples I tasted during the three days (it may have been the last of these varieties to be picked). Beneath its round, nearly solid vermillion skin, freckled with cream-colored pores, or lenticels, the Baldwin’s crisp, juicy flesh was pleasingly tart at first but finished sweeter, ending in sublime flavors of pineapple and melon.

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The view from Clarkdale Fruit Farms, Deerfield, Massachusetts, early November. (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

The view from Clarkdale Fruit Farms, Deerfield, Massachusetts, early November           (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

HERE ARE A FEW ways to get the most from your fresh apples:

When trying a new variety, always purchase at least four apples. Eat two of the apples a few days apart, within a week of purchase. No two apples are exactly alike. Subtle flavors like vanilla, nuts, or mango can vary in intensity from apple to apple, and sometimes can be hard to detect. By trying two fresh apples, you are more likely to experience the variety’s full range of flavors.

Place the other two apples in your refrigerator, and mark the date they were purchased or picked. Ideally, seal the apples in plastic bags and store them in your crisper drawer. As long as they are kept cold, though, most apples keep pretty well in a paper bag. Either bag helps them retain moisture, and keeps them from absorbing odors from foods around them.

Wait a month before tasting the first of these stored apples. Note if there is an appreciable difference in flavor and texture, good or bad. Some apples peak in flavor around this time.

Many varieties follow a similar ripening arc, albeit it at different rates, gradually losing some of their initial tartness and becoming sweeter, more complex, and juicier over time. The same variety can be appreciated in different seasons for different reasons.

From a crisp, tart green apple in late September, Shamrock gets progressively spicier and juicier for about a month before it begins to break down. The flesh of the Connecticut heirloom Sheep’s Nose is dry at harvest, but becomes mellower and juicier after a month or more in storage.

Idared’s best flavor will not emerge until the new year, when it excels in pies and in cider. The flavor of Suncrisp is said to improve in storage, but I wouldn’t know — I enjoy their sweet-tart, citrusy taste so much eaten fresh that I cannot seem to make one last long enough to find out. I have one left in my refrigerator this year, and I am determined to make it last to December, at least.

If your apple has held up well for 30 days, leave the remaining one in the refrigerator for another month (or more) before tasting it. Fuji is famous for its storage qualities. Russeted-covered apples like Ashmead’s Kernel and Roxbury Russet are well known for developing richer, more complex flavors in storage, sometimes months after they have been harvested.

Obviously, the apples available now in grocery stores, farmers markets, orchards, and farm stands, were picked weeks ago. But they have been maintained in either regular, or controlled atmosphere (CA) storage, retarding their ripening process.

Stored properly — meaning kept cold — the apples may be slightly less crisp than the day they were picked, but not much. You can test an apple’s ripening qualities any time you make your purchase.

Don’t reject perfectly good fruit. You can’t always judge an apple by its skin. Most surface blemishes on an apple are harmless and easily removed, such as a patch of apple scab, a dent from hail, or spot russeting. An otherwise fine apple can be misshapen because it rested on a branch as it grew. The apple’s flavor is in no way impaired.

All apples bruise if treated roughly, and some varieties are more susceptible than others. A thin-skinned apple like Silken or a tender-fleshed one like McIntosh require special care in handling. But a bruise here and there on an apple’s surface can easily be ignored, avoided, or removed.

A perfectly good apple often awaits beneath that less-than-perfect exterior. The Galas from The Big E are looking a little wrinkly on the outside, but their flesh remains firm and their flavor is as good as ever. The color of Galas changes in storage, too. It typically has patches of yellow at harvest, and gradually deepens to a rich red-orange.

Rub the apple, eat the skin. While apples leave the orchard and packinghouse clean, like all produce it is best to wash them off before eating, mostly because of the possibility of contamination by human handlers. You never know who may have previously picked up that apple in the bin.

The natural film or “bloom” on an apple, sometimes mistaken for pesticide residue, helps the apple retain moisture. Some of the bloom gets washed off in the packinghouse, and in some cases a drop of wax is applied to replenish it and give the apples a shine. Both the natural bloom and the cosmetic wax are harmless.

The majority of the chemicals used to treat apple pests and disease are applied in the spring and early summer, some before the fruit is even formed. Most residual traces of chemicals are washed off by rain over the summer, and apples entering the packinghouse are first dunked in a tank of water where they float for ten feet or more before entering the packing line, where they will be further buffed and brushed along the way.

But it’s always a good idea to clean your fruit before you eat it. The beauty of the apple is that you don’t need water to wash it— just rub it on your shirt, especially convenient when outdoors.

The peel and the flesh just beneath it contain much of the apple’s nutrients, so there are compelling reasons to eat it. That’s automatic for most people eating a fresh apple, but requires some rethinking on the part of many bakers and cooks. Prepared properly, though, apple skins can add color as well as nutrients to any dish.

Make sure your apples are ripe. It’s good to know what you are getting. The best way to tell if an apple is ripe is by examining its seeds. The apple should not be picked until the seeds are dark brown, almost black, in color.

If you find that some of your apples were not fully ripe when picked, you can eat them without harm. They are likely to be more tart than usual, though, may not store as well, and may have inferior flavor.

I purchased some Ginger Golds in August, and when I cut several of them open, their seeds were white, not brown. The apples tasted alright, but nowhere near as good as Ginger Golds I have had in the past.

Today, two-and-a-half months later, the apples have slowly ripened in my refrigerator, and the seeds are now medium brown. But the ripening has been uneven; the flavor is not much improved, the flesh is beginning to go soft, and they are not very juicy. Reluctantly, I’ll have to throw them out.

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For more information about New England apples, including where to find them, visit New England Apples.

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'Apples of New England' by Russell Steven PowellAPPLES 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.

Author Russell Steven 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' coverAMERICA’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.

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The view from Lyman Orchards, Middlefield, Connecticut (Russell Steven Powell photo)

The view from Lyman Orchards, Middlefield, Connecticut. (Russell Steven Powell photo)

IF McINTOSH were its sole contribution, Canada would occupy a special place among producers of New England apples. McIntosh has thrived in New England’s soil and climate ever since Dr. Thomas H. Hoskins of Newport, Vermont, planted the first McIntosh sapling in the United States, purchased from the John McIntosh family nursery in Dundela, Ontario, in 1868.

McIntosh apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

McIntosh apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Macs rapidly gained in popularity due to their unbeatable combination of outstanding flavor and hardiness. McIntosh has been New England’s leading apple variety since the 1940s, and still account for about two-thirds of the region’s crop.

A round, medium-sized apple with splashes of green and red on a thin skin, McIntosh is ready for picking in most locations soon after Labor Day. It has white, juicy flesh, is highly aromatic, and more tart than sweet in flavor. It is outstanding for both fresh eating and cooking. Its flavor is superb in pies and other baked goods, and it is often mixed with varieties with denser flesh for a firmer texture, as its tender flesh breaks down when cooked.

McIntosh needs New England’s cool nights of late summer and early fall to produce apples with the greatest color and flavor, accounting for its success here.

McIntosh’s influence can be tasted throughout the season, as a parent to such popular New England varieties as Cortland, Empire, and Macoun, and redder strains like Marshall McIntosh, Rogers Red McIntosh, and RubyMac.

While no other apple can come close to matching McIntosh’s far-reaching influence, Canada has produced a number of other varieties that have developed a niche in New England. These include the heirloom Melba (1898), and newer varieties like Chinook (2000) and Nova (1986).

Silken apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Silken apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Silken is an early season apple, medium-sized, conical in shape, pale yellow in color with an occasional pink blush or light russeting around the stem. Its tender, cream-colored flesh is aromatic and juicy, and it has mild, sweet flavor. Like many early season apples, it is best eaten fresh, as it has a short storage life.

Silken is a cross between another Canadian apple, Sunrise, and Honeygold, a variety from Minnesota. Both of Silken’s parent apples include Golden Delicious in their lineage, accounting for Silken’s sweetness and color (Sunrise’s other parent, incidentally, is McIntosh).

Silken was developed in 1982 by W.D. Lane and R.A. MacDonald at Canada’s Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland, British Columbia, and released commercially in 1998.

Shamrock apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Shamrock apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Shamrock is another new apple developed at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre. It is a round, green apple, medium to large in size, mostly solid green in color with an occasional pink blush. A mid-season apple, its tender, cream-colored flesh is more tart than sweet when first picked, with a finish hinting of honey or butterscotch.

Like many apples, Shamrock’s flavor improves in storage, becoming progressively sweeter, spicier, and juicier for several weeks, but its storage life is relatively short. It is a 1992 cross of a Spur McIntosh and Spur Golden Delicious (a spur variety results when an apple branch develops outstanding characteristics that differ in some significant way from its parent tree).

Due to its green color and initial tartness, Shamrock has been promoted as an East Coast alternative to Granny Smith, which requires a longer growing season, or the heirloom Rhode Island Greening, which is difficult to grow. But it has yet to develop a strong following in New England.

Creston apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Creston apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Creston is even newer than Shamrock, released in 1998. It is a large, conical apple, yellow with a red blush or stripes. Its yellow flesh is crisp, juicy, and more sweet than tart. It is a late-season apple that has been compared to Jonagold in flavor, texture, and appearance. But while some say it stores better than Jonagold, others contend that it can become greasy or soft in storage.

A cross between Golden Delicious and an unnamed seedling, Creston was developed at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre.

In addition to these recent entries, Canada’s apple-breeding program has been developing varieties that have been grown in New England for nearly a century.

Spartan apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Spartan apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Spartan was discovered in 1926 and released a decade later. It has dark, plum-red color, and tender, aromatic white flesh beneath a somewhat tough skin. Its flavor is more sweet than tart, with hints of strawberry and spice. A late-season apple, it is moderately juicy. It is best as a fresh-eating apple, and it stores well.

Spartan was developed by R. C. Palmer at the Pacific Agri-food Research Centre, then known as the Federal Agriculture Research Station. For years it was described as a cross between McIntosh and the American heirloom Newtown Pippin, but as a result of recent genetic testing, the latter has been ruled out, leaving Spartan’s second parent a mystery.

Spencer apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Spencer apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Ripening in mid- to late September, Spencer is a conical apple, nearly solid red-pink in color, with green highlights. Its flesh is crisp, juicy, and more sweet than tart, though less sweet than its Golden Delicious parent (Spencer’s other parent — surprise! — is McIntosh). Spencer is an all-purpose apple, especially good in pies and sauce. It does not have a lengthy storage life.

Spencer was also discovered by R. C. Palmer in 1926 — the same year as Spartan — but it took considerably longer, until 1959, for it to reach the marketplace.

Before it had an apple-breeding program, Canada produced several heirloom varieties of note besides McIntosh — including one of McIntosh’s parents, Snow apple.

Snow apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Snow apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Snow, also known as Fameuse (French for famous or excellent), is small to medium sized, red with green and pink striping. Its name is derived from its white flesh, which is sometimes stained red just beneath the skin. A late-season apple, Snow is crisp, juicy, and aromatic, more tart than sweet, with a slight strawberry flavor. Snow is best for fresh eating and in cider, and it does not store well.

Snow contributes to McIntosh’s thin skin, white flesh, and sweet-tart flavor, and to the trees’ hardiness. Snow’s origins are unclear, but dates to at least 1730. Some accounts hint that it may be much older, and originated in France rather than Canada. An apple named Snow was reported growing in Vermont’s Champlain Valley as far back as the early 1600s.

Pomme Grise apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Pomme Grise apple (Bar Lois Weeks photo)

Pomme Grise, or Gray Apple, is a small, round apple with chewy, yellow-green skin covered with coarse brown russet. Its pale yellow flesh is firm, crisp, and aromatic, more sweet than tart, with a distinctive nutty, spicy flavor. It is good for fresh eating, and especially valued for cider.

Pomme Grise was cited growing near Montreal in the early 1800s, eventually making its way south to New York’s St. Lawrence Valley, and from there to New England. It may be related or identical to a 16th-century French apple called Reinette Grise.

To find orchards that grow these apples, visit New England Apples and follow the link for “Find an Apple Orchard” to search by state or variety.

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NEW ENGLAND APPLES will have an expanded presence in the Massachusetts State Building during the 17-day Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”), which opens this Friday, September 12, continuing daily from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Sunday, September 28. The Association is renovating a larger booth this summer to boost sales of fresh apples, fresh cider, cider donuts, apple pies, and other baked goods.

Fresh apples will be supplied by Massachusetts orchards: Atkins Farms in Amherst, The Big Apple in Wrentham, Brookfield Orchards in North Brookfield, Carlson Orchards in Harvard, Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Cold Spring Orchard in Belchertown, Nestrovich Fruit Farm in Granville, Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, Red Apple Farm in Phillipston, and Tougas Family Farm in Northborough.

The booth will feature award-winning cider donuts made by Atkins Farms in Amherst, fresh, crisp apple cider from Carlson Orchards in Harvard; and fresh-baked apple pies and apple crisp made with apples supplied by Cold Spring Orchard in Belchertown.

Executive Director Bar Weeks and Senior Writer Russell Powell will be on hand every day to meet with people and answer questions about apples. Their new book, Apples of New England, will be available for sale and signing, along with their first book, America’s Apple.

The 2015 New England Apples full-color wall calendar, the revised New England Apples brochure/poster, and brochures from member Massachusetts orchards will be available to visitors during the fair, the largest in New England. Last year’s fair attracted 1.4 million visitors.

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