Monday, December 27

The Golden Apple Part III a.k.a. Goldrush

Unlike my first two posts about the golden apple, this is not a story of mythology, but rather one of a tangible fruit.  The Goldrush apple is a product of nature, but also of science, more specifically of apple breeding, which has been  the source of many new apple varieties over the past century.  Unlike the Baldwin, McIntosh or Red Delicious, which all originated as chance seedlings, the Goldrush is the progeny of several existing varieties including Rome, Golden Delicious and a variety of crab apple, which were all intentionally crossed and recrossed over a series of generations to eventually yield what would become the Goldrush. 
The Goldrush Family Tree from:

All of these crosses were performed by the Purdue, Rutgers and Illinois (PRI) breeding program, which developed the Goldrush as part of their ongoing attempt to breed scab resistant apple varieties.
Almost all of the varieties released by PRI under this breeding program, which include Enterprise, Redfree and Goldrush among others, contain a single scab resistant gene Vf derived from Malus floribunda, a species of crab apple.  The original tree that bore what would become Goldrush apples was planted in 1973 on the Purdue Horticulture Research Farm in West Lafayette, Indiana.  It was one of many trees that were planted with seeds resulting from a cross between a Golden Delicious as the seed parent and a variety known as Co-op 17 as the pollen parent.  Its official location on the farm was in block HE row 4, tree 16.  In October 1980 the tree was selected for further testing under the name Co-op 38.  Not until 1994 was the variety finally released to growers under the name Goldrush.  
Because of it's scab resistance, Goldrush is a good variety for organic growers, who often struggle to control scab in varieties that do not have the built-in genetic resistance.  I had not heard the name until this fall when I picked at Cornell Orchards.  During conversations about the picking season, Goldrush would often be mentioned as the variety that marked the end of the season, the final apple to be picked, often in the cold, sometimes snowy days of early November.  Like many late season apples, Goldrush are particularly good keepers, often needing additional time in storage to fully ripen.  In fact, several people I have spoken to, do not recommend biting into a Goldrush until at least a month after they have been picked.
I chose them as one of a few varieties to store in my basement for the winter months.  My basement, although cooler than the house, is not a true cellar by any stretch of the imagination.  I have found it takes truly good keepers to stand the test of time with my storage methods.  Today I dug out a Goldrush to test the flavor and texture.  Although it was slightly soft to the touch, when cut open the texture of the flesh was firm and amazingly crisp with no mealiness.  It tasted strikingly sweet, yet there was a distinct zing hidden in the complex flavors.  Of the storage varieties I have encountered this is one of my favorites.  We will see how it holds up in February or March, but for now I can say this apple excited my taste buds and added a little sweetness to a cold and very snowy December day.

Sunday, December 12

First Snow

Winter's first snow is always a thing of excitement for me.  Like the sight of the first Robin or the taste of my first apple, I feel as though it serves to mark the season.  This past week the flurries and flakes flew in the Finger Lakes region, blanketing the ground with a dusting some places and up to a few feet in others. 
After a few weeks back in Wisconsin for an extended Thanksgiving visit with family and friends, I returned to Ithaca last weekend.  With flurries in the air this past week, I also returned to the orchard to help with some fencing work.  
Slowly, over the past several years, the orchard has been replacing the archaic chain-link fence that has surrounded the Lansing orchard since before the first trees were planted.  November and December are usually the only months slow enough at the orchard to allow for time to build the fence and that is only if there is not too much snow on the ground to prevent the tractors to from getting around the orchard.
So this week, with highs only in the mid-twenties, I dug out my long underwear and fleece-line boots and headed out to the fence line.
The trees in the orchard are almost all bare.  Here and there a few leaves still cling, mostly on the later varieties like the Ida Red and Gold Rush.  The trees left naked, dozing off for their winter sleep, appear so much smaller than they did in their full regalia.  Those that seemed to tower above you in October now have a more modest reach towards the sky.  The fallen, half rotten apples still show their rosy cheeks through the dusting of snow upon the ground.  The apples missed by the picking crew, those camouflaged by the leaves, now hang like forgotten ornaments on the tree.  The Golden Delicious, which were so well hidden a few months ago now stand out in stark contrast to the dark branches and snow the flies through the air and blankets the ground.
Building fence is not something that can be rushed.  Stretching three hundred and thirty feet of ten-foot tall wire mesh, requires close attention to detail in order to maintain proper tension and work out any kinks that form as the fence conforms to the contours of the land.  The key is finding ways to keep warm, moving as much a possible.  Taking breaks for a cup of tea or hot chocolate never hurts either.

Sunday, November 14

After Apple Picking

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

                                                                                            -Robert Frost

Monday, November 8

Post Harvest Clean-up

Henry David Thoreau wrote in his book Wild Apples a simple yet bold sentence: "All apples are good in November."  In the past week I have had many opportunities to test this assertion.  We are in the midst of the post-harvest clean-up of the orchard, raking apples, cutting suckers and mowing weeds and high grasses.  This tidying of the orchard has allowed me to glean those hidden apples of all varieties and after a great deal of sampling I would have to say I respectfully disagree with Mr. Thoreau.  Perhaps Thoreau was not graced with the pleasure of biting into a McIntosh that has defied the laws of gravity since mid-September.  Some varieties, those picked only a few weeks prior, give to the pallet a sensation very similiar to the flavor and texture they had the day I picked them.  Others seem only to worsen with age, becoming soft, mealy and in some cases overly sweet.  There are those however that when bitten into have a taste that seems only possible this time of year.  For this apple, I must wholeheartedly agree with Thoreau when he says the November air "is the sauce it is to be eaten with.' 
The days are colder, but still of an enjoyable temperature to work in.  The key I have found is to dress in layers, which can be peeled off as the body and the day begin to warm.  Many of the apple trees have begun to turn in color, most to various shades of yellow and gold, a few to orange or even a deep crimson. 
Putting the orchard to bed is hard but satisfying work.  In some ways raking the apples out from under the trees feels much more physically strenuous than picking the fruit.  The job is messy with apples being crushed under foot and the sent of fermenting fruit in the nostrils.  As a crew we slowly make our way up and down each row.  Some varieties leave little work to be done, with only an apple here or there to be found, others have yellow and red carpets under them.  This is a part of the harvest season I have never been a part of before, but I am greatful to learn what goes into preparing the orchard for winter.  It is a good reminder that the work does not end when the apples are off the trees. 
Raked apples

Sunday, October 31

Apple picking day 43: The Last Apple

As I near the end of a picking season I always find myself experiencing a mixture of sadness and relief. Sadness that the season and work I love is coming to an end and relief that my body will soon get some much needed time to rest and heal from the strenuous days of picking. 
As the final day nears, I often think about the last apple of the season.  What variety will it be?  What part of the orchard will it be in?  Will I know it is the last apple of the season?  I suppose I never really remember my last apple after the fact.  There is no ceremony to it, but somehow the last day of picking does take on a special meaning.
The first part of the past week we spent in the Fuji, some of the longest rows in the orchard that seemed to stretch on and on, compelling you to glance down to the end of the row each time you dumped your bucket, past the empty bins waiting to be filled.  Although there were only three rows, the crop was heavy and it took three of us several days to pick the trees clean.  By Wednesday all that was left in the orchard was the Goldrush and a few cider apples.
Bins lined-up in the Fuji
The day was warm, in the high seventies and in many ways it felt much more like the first day of picking rather than the last.  It was not the cold windy November day that I envisioned picking the Goldrush in.  It was, none the less, very pleasant and the bare trees of the surrounding forest, the honking of the geese overhead and the golden leaves of the Goldrush trees were a sufficient reminder of the season. 
The pace of the day felt slower than most.  We worked steadily, but it felt as though there was no rush to reach the inevitable.  Instead I felt a desire to savor the final moments of a long season.  Taking the time to sit under the trees and share a lunch with fellow pickers or pause at the top of a ladder to take in the view of the lake and the maples as they let loose their final leaves, leaving the stage to the red and russet oaks. 
Although the crew was spread out for most of the day in different parts of the orchard picking a few remaining cider apples and beginning clean-up, we all converged in the last of the Goldrush by the end of the day.  Call me sentimental, but it felt rather symbolic to have the entire crew share in the last of the harvest.  As I walked away from the trees I felt many things, but mostly a sense of gratitude for the harvest and for the opportunity to partake in such noble work.  As the last of the bins were loaded onto the truck to be hauled back to the orchard, I took comfort in knowing there will always be another season.
The last load of apples for the season
Although the picking is over there is still a lot to do in the orchard to prepare it for winter.  The apples have to be raked out from under the trees, all the suckers cut and the isles between the trees mowed.  This work should take another few weeks, time I will be happy to spend among the trees.
Goldrush on the last morning of picking

Wednesday, October 20

Picking Day 37: Geese

I walked in the door tonight with my hands full of cider, a jar of grape jelly from a co-worker and a picking bucket of heirloom apples.  It was one of those moments where it struck me how wonderful the season is and how lucky I am to be blessed with such work.  The end of the day is my favorite time, especially when my hands are callused and my feet sore.
Morning in the Goldens
Geese few over my head many times today, rounding up any last stragglers as they make there journey south.  One small V would fly over, than a few minutes later a larger one would appear from the direction in which the first disappeared.  There is talk of snow, although I have my doubts.
We picked the last of the Golden Delicious this morning.  It started out cold and wet, the hands numb, not wanting to grip the apples.  I could see my breath as I filled my first bin.  Without much warning the sun broke through, striking the apples in such a way they almost seemed to glow.  By mid-morning we moved on to Cameos and then Romes and  few last Jonagolds.  We fished the day picking a couple bins of Ida Reds, which seemed to be some of the largest apples in the whole orchard.  Unfortunately there are only three short rows of them and before we know it they will be gone.  
Most of the maples have lost their color, although one outside my living-room window is still stuck in mid-summer.  The oaks still have awhile, as do the apple trees, which almost always seem to stay green long after the woods around them have turned.

Thursday, October 14

Apple Picking Day 31: Shorter Days and Cold Nights

Ida Red
The nights have been getting colder, bringing out the reds and yellows in the maples, making some of them almost neon.  Frost is still to come here in the Ithaca Valley, but up at the orchard the grass was coated in the first frost of the season this morning, creating a shimmering silver blanket as the long rays of the early morning sun brushed across it.  The Golden Delicious were cold to the touch this morning, making the hands partially numb for the first hour of picking.   By mid-morning the sweater was peeled off and my lunch I was in a t-shirt, welcoming the rays of what I might consider an almost perfect October day.   
Golden Delicious
After a morning in the Golden Delicious, we moved into the two rows of Ida Red.  They were big and easy to see compared to the Golden Delicious and Mutsu which have a habit of hiding in the thick foliage.  Picking the Idas always marks a turn toward the end of the season.  With only a week or a little more of picking left, the orchard is beginning to look bare.
 We finished the Mutsu yesterday, picking the last of the softball size fruit felt like a bit of a letdown, but there was also a satisfying sense of accomplishment as we enter the last push to get in the the harvest before it falls off the trees.  Although many are on the ground, there is still a good number of empires left on the trees, probably most of a days work.  There are still more Golden Delicious, Fuji, Rome and of course Gold Rush left to pick as well. 
Roxbury Russet
Northern Spy
The Northern Spy where picked at the end of last week a long with all but a smattering of Jonagolds.  Fortunes also came in off the trees as did a few of the heirloom varieties including the Roxbury Russet.
 This is the kind of fall weather I like, the late afternoons are cool, the mornings chilly and the colors of the maples are absolutely exquisite.  Each apple that falls to the ground or is placed in my picking bucket is a reminder of the fleeting nature of the season.  I begin to find a comfort in the sight of a tree that still has apples on it, but I also have an all to keen awareness that this harvest season, like all others will end.  What a wonderful reason to enjoy every day that is left. 
View from the Mutsu

Thursday, October 7

Apple Picking Day 23: Pressing Cider

For the past week were were in the midst of typical Ithaca weather -rain.  Several days last week were rained out and the first part of this week was not much different.  Usually we do not pick in the rain since the moisture makes the apples softer and easier to bruise.  It also makes the ladders treacherous and any slope becomes a little more challenging for a tractor hauling a half-ton bin of apples.
The sorting table
Last Thursday we enjoyed the remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole which dumped upwards of five inches of rain on most the area.  With little work to be done outdoors, most of the crew found work in the shed sorting apples, making grape juice or pressing cider.  I was lucky enough to take part in the latter.
Apple on their way to the grinder
The cider room is a rather small room attached to the rest of the shed with a few not so complicated looking pieces of machinery.  It has a cement floor and every thing is washable with hoses, making for easy clean-up.  The apples are first dumped from a bin unto a conveyor belt where any rotten or bird-pecked apples are sorted out.  This was my task for most of the day and although it was nothing glorious, I found it very enjoyable and felt lucky to be dry on a such a day, even if it meant trading my picking bucket for a sticky apron and earplugs.
From the conveyor belt the apples go through a washer which gets off any grime, such as the remnants of the aforementioned rotten apples.  From there they go into a hopper where they are taken up a second conveyor and dropped into a grinder.  Once ground they are taken via a vacuum pump through a hose to the pressing table where the slury is deposited in layers.  Each later is wrapped in a poris cloth and separated by a sheet of plastic.  As soon as the layers start to grow cider begins to drip like sweet nectar out of the lower layers from the weight of the ones above.  The stack will continue to grow until it reaches about twenty layers, at which point it starts to sway a bit.  At this point it is rolled onto a hydraulic press and slowly squeezed.  The cider drips into troughs and then is pumped into a tanker truck outside.  Each stack contains roughly thirty-five bushels of apples and will yield around one hundred gallons of cider.

The stack before pressing
The stack after pressing
 After each stack is fully pressed, it is disassembled and the remnants of the ground apples, which are now almost bone dry are discarded.  The process is repeated over and over again becoming one deliciously sticky mess.  Not a bad way to spend a rainy day.

Wednesday, September 29

Apple Picking Day 22: Hard-working Hands

My hands have been showing the wear and tear of several weeks of picking.  The scratches, welts and calluses that come from picking thousands of apples a day.  The trees always seem to be able to reach out and find the same cut or banged-up knuckle over and over again.  It is especially bad with apples that spur a lot, where the constant motion of knocking the spur off the apple can wreak havoc on your cuticles.  
After a day of picking Cortlands
Wounds that won't seem to heal
Today we can add to the list of battle wounds, a swollen wrist I got from picking a little too enthusiastically in the first of the Mutsu.   I may have picked the most bushels of any day so far this year, but I also picked myself right out of the orchard and into an Ace bandage.  After applying Arnica and a heat rub, I hope this will be a temporary setback, only a reminder to slow down and listen to my body.  Picking apples can be very hard on your body, especially when you put all you have into it, which I have a tendency to do. 
Tomorrow I expect a reprieve from picking as we are expecting more rain.  Instead I will spend the day under a roof helping press cider.  I hope with a day of rest my wrist will be ready to face the trees when the sun shines again.
Waiting to pick the Empires in Lansing
After about a month of picking we are in the thick of it.  The equinox passed about a week ago and at the orchard it seems we have also reached a point of equality, with many trees already picked bare and a similar number still laden with fruit.  All of the McIntosh and Cortland have been picked and we have put a good dent in the Empires as well as the Jonagolds .  Still ahead lie the Mutsu, sitting there like the promised land, along with Golden and Red Delicious, Ida Reds, Liberty, Fugis and Northern Spy as well as a handful of lesser known varieties.  Last will come Goldrush, in late October or even the first part of November.

Cortland in the early morning

Monday, September 20

Picking Apples Day 14: Cider Apples

Chisel Jersey
For many people cider is a sweet fresh pressed juice that can be found at any orchard in the autumn months.  Historically however, the term cider referred to hard cider, which was the only kind of cider for centuries until refrigeration and more recently pasteurization allowed cider to be kept fresh for weeks or even months.  Today's fresh cider is pressed from the very same apples that we are used to eating, ones like McIntosh, Cortland and Honeycrisp.  Hard cider on the other hand can be made from a wide variety of apples, many of them seedlings.
Cider apples are rarely consumed fresh, many of them are lovingly referred to as "spitters," due to the high concentration of tannins and generally unsavory texture that makes them unpalatable.  Historically hard cider was made from almost any apple in the orchard and early cider orchards were often planted from seeds and did not require the grower to have mastered the art of grafting.
At Cornell Orchards there is a far corner block of apples with names like Summerset Redstreak and Chisel Jersey.  This is the cider block where they cultivate a handful of different apples that have traditionally been used for making hard cider.  Last week we took a few afternoons to pick some of these apples.  It was a nice change of pace from the usual picking.  One does not have to be nearly as gentle with the cider apples being as they are going straight to the press.  Unlike other apples cider apple drops can also be collected since the fermentation and alcohol will kill any unwanted bacteria.
picking cider apples
First we picked up the drops under the trees with five gallon bucks, the apples making a fun "ker-plunk" as we dropped them into the empty buckets.  The drops went into a separate bin from the ones that came from the trees, but all will find there way to the press.   What cider apples lack in taste they make up for in appearance: they are beautiful colors and a single variety can range from green to yellow orange and red depending upon their ripeness.  They are also varied in their texture, some are very firm while others feel almost spongy.  Picking cider apples feels much more relaxed than picking where one is getting paid per bushel.  The crew moves together though the trees, stripping the apples from the branches.  There is usually conversation and banter and sometimes even a bit of singing when the tractor is not around.
We will revisit the block a few more times this season as different varieties come ripe.  When it is all said and done and the apples meet the press, I hope to get my hands on some of the juice and try my luck at a batch or two. 
A full bin of Chisel Jersey ready to be hauled away

Tuesday, September 14

Picking Apples Day 11: The Standard

At Cornell Orchards there is a small collection of very old trees known as standards.  This term refers to the rootstock, which in the case of these trees was grown from a seed.  Almost any apple tree in a conventional orchard is grown on a particular rootstock bred to produce a certain size tree, such as dwarf tree which will only grow to be eight to ten feet tall .  Prior to the propagation of particular rootstocks, all apple trees where grafted onto seedling rootstocks which would grow to the height and size of a wild apple tree.  These standard trees could easily reach eighteen to twenty feet in height and a similar breadth.  They are a whole different breed of apple tree, anachronisms in an age of controlled breeding and dwarf trees, magnificent stalwart giants of a time largely gone by. 
The rows of standard trees at Cornell used to stretch for almost a quarter mile, all the way to the treeline.  Now, rows of grapes and dwarf trees grow where these trees put down roots for almost a century.  Less than a dozen standard trees remain, mostly Cortlands and one McIntosh.  Today I got to pick that McIntosh.
Sixteen-foot straight ladders (eight foot in background)
After a morning of picking dwarf Cortland trees with eight foot tripod ladders we broke for lunch under the large McIntosh tree, surrounded by fallen apples.  Leaned up against the tree were two sixteen-foot straight wooden ladders waiting for us.  Finding the right nooks and crannies of the trees in which to place the ladder requires a lot of thought and a little intuition.  I felt as if I was picking apples they way they were meant to be picked; with thought and care and at the top of every climb up the ladder, an awe-inspiring view.  The tree took two of us about half an hour to pick and yielded only half a bin of apples, although I suspect there was another half of a bin on the ground under the tree.  High in the upper most reaches of the tree there were a few apples even our sixteen foot ladders and six foot bodies could not reach, as if the tree was reminding us that we can not always attain every fruit.
After we were done I took an apple from the bin, call it a reward if you will.  As McIntosh goes it was incredibly delicious, one of the best I have tasted.  The horticulturist in me knew that this could have little to do with the rootstock and much more with the particular variety grafted onto that rootstock, but I would like to believe that only a tree such as this one could yield such delectable fruit. 

Monday, September 13

Apple Picking Day 9: Rainy Mornings and McIntosh

The last few mornings have been wet and rainy, coating the trees and the apples in small cool droplets that work there way up your sleeve and drop into your eyes as you pick the upper branches.  It has also been much cooler, making me grateful for long sleeves, dry shoes and the morning cup of coffee I take out into the orchard with me.  It certainly feels like fall has come to stay and every day I see more and more maples with tinted tips.
We have moved into the world of Macs, some tastier than others, but all soft easily bruised.  The rain only exacerbates these traits making the apples ever so easy to blemish.  McIntosh are otherwise very enjoyable to pick.  They come off the tree with only a small flick of the wrist and many of them are very sizable, almost reaching the proportions of a Cortland.  Although the days have started out cool and wet the sun almost always shows it's face by the afternoon.
Elaina donning her rain gear on a rainy apple morning
 The forecast is for more rain and more Macs as we move into mid-September and closer to the autumnal equinox.  It feels wonderful to be picking in the cool air upon which rides the nostalgia that makes this my favorite season.  I am cool damp and content.
The morning cup of coffee

Thursday, September 9

Picking Day 8: A New Variety

The weather has turned toward autumn, much to my delight.  For the last two mornings I have worn a long sleeve shirt into the orchard and armed myself with a hot cup of tea.  Rain has also threatened for the last two days.  We have been picking in the Lansing orchard where one can see the rain rolling over the western hills across the lake.  The lake kept most of the rain on it's western shores, as mist and a few rainy gusts were the only inclement weather that intruded upon our picking.
We have moved past the Galas and into Macs and Honeycrisp as well as Jonamacs.  Today I picked Shizukas for the first time; a sister apple to the Mutsu that ripens earlier in the season.  If I had not been told otherwise I would have had little trouble believing I was picking Mutsu.
Unfortunately I did not carry my camera with me today so the following picture was taken after the fact.  Tonight we are baking the first apple pie of the season with some Galas and Honeycrisp.
Shizuka 2010

Mutsu 2009