We recently held our first ever Apple Fest at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge and, ever since, I have had apples on my mind! For me, apples provoke a range of memories and positive associations but, only recently, did I take the time to delve a little further into the history and science of this fruit.
When I was a child, we used to visit my grandparents’ place in Connecticut and, in their orchard, we were able to pick McIntosh apples straight from the trees. Eating an apple outside and, remembering the legend of Johnny Appleseed, I would try to plant the odd apple seed. When I did so, I always envisioned a bountiful apple tree heavy with fruit and looking precisely like the apple I was munching on. Little did I know that my seed, had it ever come to fruition, would have produced something very different. Apple seeds are heterozygotes meaning that, like human children, they often bear only a slight resemblance to their parents. This is why there are so many apple varieties!
The part of me that loves to spend time in the kitchen relishes this time of year – a time that has traditionally brought with it a slew of delicious, apple-derived dishes: apple pie, caramel apples and apple cider to name a few. The prominence of the apple in the American food psyche is nothing new. If anything, it is less prominent now than it was a century ago. In the 19th century, Americans were growing in the region of 14,000 distinct varieties of apples, a period in our history that has been called the “golden age” of pomology. Apples were reviewed with the same enthusiasm with which people now review movies!
Today there are only about 90 apple varieties that are grown commercially and four predominate: Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Fuji and Granny Smith. China is the number one grower of apples in the world while the United States is the second largest. In the US, about 7,500 commercial growers in 36 states harvest 48,000 tons of fruit. The average American consumes around 16 pounds of apples per year, making it this country’s second most popular fruit after the banana.
Recently, however, the US has been seeing greater and greater interest in heritage varieties. Often these varieties were phased out because they were not as disease resistant or because they were not as adaptable as, for example, the Red Delicious which can thrive in a wide variety of climates. More and more, we are seeing some of the apple “rock stars” of early America in our farmers’ markets and in our apple bins here at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.
One of these special apple varieties is the Rhode Island Greening. In colonial New England, Rhode Island Greening apples were the top choice for pie-making. I recently used this variety to make some mini apple pies here at the store and really liked the firm texture and wonderfully tart flavor. In the mid-Atlantic region, the Winesap and Stayman apple varieties were the choice for pie making. Winesap is also a fantastic varietal for cider-making. True to its name, the apple has a complex, wine-like flavor. It also stores very well – more than six months in the proper conditions.
An apple variety that I have yet to come across is Bramley’s Seedling – this used to be the classic English pie apple. At 1% acidity, it is one of the most acidic of all apple varieties. In the United States, Bramley’s Seedling is grown in the Pacific Northwest and in the swathe of country extending from Nebraska to Maine. That said, I continue to keep an eye out and as soon as I find this apple, you will find me in the bakery rolling out the pie dough!
Our founding fathers were keen apple critics and the Newtown Pippin seems to have been particularly popular. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both fans. Benjamin Franklin, while posted in Paris, had apples shipped to him and the Newtown Pippin was a preferred variety. During the reign of Queen Victoria, this apple was shipped from Albemarle County, Virginia to England and was the only food exempt from the crown import tax, purportedly because it was so popular at court.
Hard apple cider was also a staple in early America. Apple juice contains, on average, 13% sugar. After a process of natural fermentation, this produces a cider with an alcohol content of approximately 6% by volume. People have been making cider for at least 2,000 years. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden apple guide relates that, “In America, between 1650 and 1850, almost every Yankee farmer had a basement full of cider barrels, and hard cider was on the table for each meal. By the mid-19th century, however, cider was being supplanted by beer, and cider making was eventually singled out for suppression by the temperance movement in the 20th century.” As well, in 1918, a massive winter frost destroyed many cider orchards in the US – this, in conjunction with the temperance movement proved fatal to the cider industry which largely disappeared with the exception of a few small, rural pockets. While suppression may have been the watchword of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, recently we have been seeing a fantastic revival in traditional hard ciders! Notable producers in New England are West County Cider and Farnum Hill Cider.
On a slightly different, apple-related note, I think it is also worth mentioning the differences between apple juice and apple cider (of the non-alcoholic variety). Clearly, there is a big difference in both color and flavor. Interestingly, these differences can be solely attributed to how finely the apple juice is filtered. Apple juice that is pressed and strained extremely finely becomes clear apple juice. Cider, on the other hand, is apple juice that has been less finely strained – particles of the pulp are allowed to pass through. It is these particles that change color, giving cider its brown hue (and making for a residue at the bottom of your cider bottle). It is also these particles that make the flavor distinctly different from that of apple juice. After learning this distinction, I realized how intuitive it actually was – when you are eating an apple, the juice that comes out is clear. However, if you leave an apple sitting around for a while, the flesh turns brown. Why apple juice is clear and apple cider is brown all of a sudden made perfect sense!
Sweet apple cider lends itself to many uses – from mulled cider, to flavoring apple cake to cider jelly. The latter is something that was new to me when I came to Formaggio but it’s nothing new in the world of apples. We stock Wood’s Apple Cider Jelly which has been made in Vermont by the Wood family since 1882. Talk about apple history! The jelly is a great spread on autumnal sandwiches and, the next time I serve pork, I will be pairing it with cider jelly instead of applesauce.
In terms of straight up apple eating, one of my favorites is the Macoun (pronounced like Mc-Gown). It was one of the first apples developed by Cornell’s Geneva Experiment Station. Released in 1923, it is a cross between the McIntosh and Jersey Black. I find that Macouns have a short shelf life so it is important to get them soon after picking – if you do, you will find yourself enjoying a fantastically crispy, crunchy, tart apple with a hint of sweetness! The other day, after finishing work in the shop, I grabbed a Macoun and munched it all the way home – a perfect accompaniment to the fall weather!
“The Best Apples to Buy and Grow” (a Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide), edited by Beth Hanson
“Making the Best Apple Cider” by Annie Proulx
“The Art of Cidermaking” by Paul Correnty