Wednesday, March 31

Trees of Yore

Doing some research into the Baldwin apple for a future post, I came across this photograph of a Baldwin orchard taken in Monroe County, NY.  The source did not sight the date, but I imagine it was taken sometime in the last half of the 19th century or the early 20th century.  The orchard pictured was owned by a man named Foster Udell. 
These predecessors to the dwarf and semi-dwarf trees that make up many of the orchards today, reached heights that seem almost mythical.  The pickers themselves seem truly dwarfed by these imposing trees; gatherers in a forest rather than harvesters in a field.  The wild, unruly shapes taken  on by the trees, allows me to conceive that there is in fact, a Kazakh relative deep in their genetic history.

My best guess as someone who has climbed my share of ladders, is that the ones pictured are well over twenty feet in height, perhaps 24 or even 26 feet (the tallest I have climbed is an 18 footer).  The ladders seem to almost disappear into the tops of the trees, I can hardly imagine what it was like to reach into the depths of the tree, what green surprises you would find within; apples without the rosy blush of sunshine.
As I picker I love to pick in standard trees.  In the time it takes to pick a large tree, even half the size of the ones above, you start to form a relationship with each tree.  With a good crop on it, a standard tree can easily take half an hour to pick, yielding 10 or more bushels.  On each trip to the bin, with a pregnant bag of apples, you notice the unique things about the tree; the knot in an outstretched limb, or the vines of creeping Virginia that wind up the center of the tree and spill over the top.  The tree begins to take on a personality.  You learn to approach each one differently.  A skillful picker makes many choices when picking a large tree, much more so than a small tree, who's apples can all fit in one or two buckets.  Their are choices about where to place the ladder, which limb to pick next or which way around the tree is the quickest back to the bin.  You make note of where to put the ladder next and learn which apples are worth stretching for and which are best left for the next ladder set.  It becomes a dance, in which the tree leads and the picker follows.  I can only imagine what kind of tangos took place in the old orchards of New England.

Thursday, March 25

Roxbury Russet

The Roxbury Russet is believed to be one of the oldest apple varieties in the United Sates.  Thought to have originated in Roxbury Massachusetts, near modern-day Boston, the apple has also been kindly  referred to over the years as the Boston Russet, or simply the "roz."
The Roxbury was probably first discovered in the early 1600s, slowly making its way westward. It was introduced in Connecticut in 1649, and appeared in parts of Ohio by 1797, where it was more commonly known as the Marietta Russet or Putnam Russet.  Another version of its origination is told by the descendants of a man named Joseph Warren, who they claim was the man to grow the first Roxbury Russet.  However Joseph was not born until 1696 putting the dawning of the Roxbury sometime in the 18th century.  Joseph met a rather unusual death at the age of 59, breaking his neck after falling from a ladder, while picking apples in his orchard.
Regardless of its origin, the Roxbury became a very popular apple in the 18th and 19th centuries.  As early as 1778 Thomas Jefferson planted a number of Roxburys at Monticello in his south orchard, calling them "russetings" after their tendency to develop a mottled, and rough skin.  It found a home as far north as Ontario, where FRUITS OF ONTARIO 1906 reported it to be "one of the staple export varieties in many parts of southern Ontario."  However it also found a home in warmer climates, being shipped to California in 1850, where it was planted in the Napa Valley.  The apple was still the most widely grown russet apple in the Sate of New York in 1905.  The Roxbuy's popularity was in large part a result of the it's reputation as a good winter keeper, but was also prized as an excellent cider apple.
Several factors contributed to the downfall of the Roxbury.  First, as cold storage techniques developed and improved, an apple's ability to keep through the winter was no longer as highly valued, since almost any variety could be made to last through the winter.  Secondly, with the push to cultivate and market apples for eating, rather than just for cider and cooking, the Roxbury fell victim to the desire for more pristine and cosmetically superior apple varieties, forgoing substance for vanity.  Because of its tendency to russet, which does not in fact affect the flavor or the nutritional value of the apple, but does give it rustic look, the spotted, rough skin of the Roxbury could not compete with the iconic image of the apple, embodied by such varieties as the McIntosh or Red Delicious.  Today the Roxbury is almost exclusively grown as an heirloom apple, but can still be found at farmer's markets, especially on it's native soil in the Northeast. 
The Roxbury ripens  mid-season, usually being harvested in late September or early October.  It is resistant to scab and usually gives a heavy crop, although some sources site it as having the tendency towards biennial baring.  With a similar appearance, the Roxbury is sometimes confused with the Golden Russet, however if examined closely they bare several distinctive differences.

Other synonyms for the Roxbury:
Boston Russet
Reinette Rousse de Boston
Howe's Russet
Marietta Russet
Belfre Russet
Jusset, Warner Russet
Silvan Russet
Pitman's Russet
Shippen's Russet
Ruginetta di Boston
Belper Russet
to name a few...

Saturday, March 20

Apple Genetics

"Why do we need so many kinds of apples? Because there are so many folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate taste. If he wants twenty or forty kinds of apples for his personal use…he should be accorded the privilege. There is merit in variety itself. It provides more contact with life, and leads away from uniformity and monotony." 
-- Liberty Hyde Baily

Apples are a mysterious fruit, a metaphor for the uncertainty that life has refused to relinquish to the human desire for predictability.  I myself find the whimsical fickleness of the apple seed incredibly refreshing and even comforting in the face of an increasingly mono-culture.  For centuries, the secret hidden within the apple seed has captivated the minds of everyone from geneticists to Johnny Appleseed.  But the same phenomenon that instills such mystery in the apple, also gives it a fleeting nature.  Here is how I look at it:  Say I were to plant an apple tree from a seed I found, giving me a tree baring the most delectable, tasty (and yes taste is a matter of personal opinion and favor) apples I had ever sunk my teeth into.  Year after year I harvested these apples and each spring the tree bore anew.  Then one fall after the branches had been picked bare, a cold winter wind fell the tree.  Knowing this I saved all the seeds from the fall harvest.  Yet in all those seeds, not one would contain the genetic code capable of growing a tree that could reproduce the apple I had come to love.  No matter how many seeds were planted, that apple would never again exist.  Fleeting.  The art of grafting fruit trees has allowed growers and breeders to have a say in how long of an appearance a particular apple variety makes on this planet, but the principle remains the same: inside each apple seed of every single apple that has ever existed, lies the potential for uniqueness.   

 Apples have a genetic property referred to as extreme hetrozygosity, meaning that alleles  of a gene can be radically different from each other.  Alleles are an alternative form of a gene that arise from mutation, but occur at the same loci or place on a chromosome.  For instance, human DNA has three different alleles of the gene responsible for blood type; that for A blood type, B blood type and O blood type.   The variation within an apple’s alleles, even if small, can affect everything from the color of its skin, to its susceptibility to a particular disease.  
Humans, who also display hetrozygosity, do not show as extreme a difference in  alleles, allowing for there to be resemblance among siblings and between parents and their children.  This is not the case for apples.  Alleles of genes can be radically different and almost always a seedling apple tree will bear fruit nothing like the apple from whence the seed came.  Most apples that come from seedling trees are deemed "spitters" meaning one is prone to spit them out upon tasting.  However the continual recombination of genes into new possibilities, can yield visually unique if not tasty apples worthy of the cider press, the pie pan or even greater gustatory distinction.   
This phenomenon also allows the apple to easily adapt to new environmental conditions.  A seedling apple tree may have the ability to thrive in an ecosystem where the parent trees could only cope: 

“Whenever the apple tree goes, its offspring propose so many different variations on what it means to be an apple –at least five per apple, several thousand per tree –that a couple of these novelties are almost bound to have whatever qualities it takes to prosper in the tree’s adopted home.”
                                                                                                                                --Michael Pollan

The capacity of a seedling apple tree to find a home away from home is largely what shaped orchards in North America.  Where many established European varieties struggled and died in unwelcoming winters, brutal heat, or spring freezes, seedling apple trees found their niche.  It could be more aptly said, that the apple seed not the apple itself made the journey on immigrant boats to the eastern shores of New England, giving us many of the varieties we know today along with many heirlooms lost and forgotten in the cider orchards of a time fare removed.     
In a world where it seems as though there are few accessible places humans have not tread, islands in the ocean that have not been discovered or waterfalls in the woods that have not been stumbled upon, the idea of taking a seed from the heart of an apple and placing it in the ground gives me an almost childlike giddiness.

Monday, March 15

Apple Pie

"Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness." 
-- Jane Austen

There are perhaps more recipes for apple pie then there are varieties of apples to put in them.  By this time of year I find myself craving those fresh delights of fall that are the fruit of the harvest season.  Each autumn as a picker, as the end of the season neared, I would make my way back into different blocks of apples that had already been picked and find those apples that escaped the careful eyes of my fellow pickers.  Late on an October day, when the crew made its way back to the picker house and home to a weary, but well deserved supper, I would drive out into the gently sloping hills of Cortlands, Empires, Haralsons and Golden Russets, and walk down the long rows, picking bag slung over my shoulder.  The trees, unburdened of their crop took on a new dimension, stretching their weary limbs, tired but proud.  Strolling down the rows bathed in the auburn rays of the deep afternoon sun, I would peer under limbs and into the depths of the trees to the places where apples find their hiding places.  It was like playing hide and seek; my eye would catch a glimpse of an apple two rows over, after ducking through outstretched branches it would deceive my gaze.  I used to tell myself you needed a pickers eye to find these apples; the last of the crop.  After a long day of picking this was some of my favorite time in the orchard, my own time.  As the bag began to weigh heavy on my already tired shoulder, I would find a gap in the trees further down the slope and wend my way back in the direction I had come.  Almost always, I would find a trove of unnoticed apples just as my bag neared full, forcing me to heap the fruit and lumber back to my car under the weight my winter store.  By the end of the season a colorful assortment of my favorite varieties filled the trunk of my car.  Inevitably the first days and weeks unoccupied by picking would be full of simmering pots of apple sauce, crumbly crisps and of course apple pies, many, many pies. 

Apple Pie

 I am a believer that any recipe serves only as suggestions subject to the creative license of its follower.  Thus, proportions should be adjusted to taste and additions should be made thoughtfully.  I am not a huge fan of sugar and like to let the apples speak for themselves, if you have a big sweet tooth, you may want to adjust the amounts of sweetener.

6-8 Apples (at least two varieties, preferably with different colored skin)
2 T. Fresh Lemon Juice
1/3 C. Maple Syrup
1/4 C. Honey or Brown Sugar
2 t. Cinnamon
1 t. Ground Ginger
1/4 t. Ground Cloves
1/4 t. Ground Nutmeg
1/4 C. Unbleached White Flour or 2 T. Corn Starch

2 C. Unbleached White Flour
1 C. Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
1 C. Soft Butter
1 t. Salt 
1/2 to 3/4 C. Cold Water

For crust, cut butter into flour with pastry cutter or knives.  Add salt.  With fork, fold water into dough only until no loose flour is visible.  Divide into two even balls.  Let the dough sit, or chill it if you wish.  Peel apples and divide into 8-12 slices.  Cut the slices in half and place in large mixing bowl.  After 6 apples pour the cut apples into the pie dish to gauge how many you will need.   You want the dish to be slightly heaping.  Pour back into bowl and cut more apples if needed.  Add lemon juice (this will keep the apples from browning and add a little zest to the pie).  Stir in  maple syrup and other sweetener.  Add spices.  Add flour or cornstarch (this helps soak up some of the juices which will cook out of the apples during the baking).
Roll out the first ball of dough on a floured surface or between two sheets of wax paper until it is large enough to cover the pie pan (you can place the empty pan over the dough to judge this).  If you are using wax paper peel the top layer off, place the pie pan on top of the dough and flip them both over.  Peel the other layer of wax paper off and finesse the dough into the pie pan, leave 1/2 inch of dough around the edge. Pour in the filling.  Roll out top crust in the same manner and flip onto filled pie pan.  Fold the top and bottom crusts together around the edge and crimp with your fingers or use a wet fork to press the crust.  Cut slits into the top crust in a pattern of your choice.  Bake at 425 for 15 min and then reduce heat to 350 and bake for 35-45min more.  Cool and enjoy!

Thursday, March 11

Featured Blog: Adams Apples

I wanted to introduce a fellow blogger in the small (but hopefully expanding) world of blogs relating to apples.  Adam is a connoisseur of apples and has taken the time to sample and write about many of the varieties found in orchards around his home in Massachusetts. His blog Adams Apples has been a joy to follow ever since I started my escapade into web-based apple research.  I find what he has to say insightful and always a good read.

 The list of apples Adam has reviewed is quite impressive and discussions of a variety often go well beyond describing the intricacies of an apple's flavor or consistency.  All the apple reviews are accompanied by a photo and often contain links to further resources about each apple.  The blog also contains a line of posts detailing what varieties of apple are good to eat each month of the year, although I imagine that can be challenging this time of year.  Some posts  branch out into discussions of other topics apple related, some of them scientific, some humorous and all provideing something valuable for those peering into the world of apples.  I imagine there are plenty of gems in the archives I have not yet taken the time to dig though, but don't just take my word for it, have a gander.

Tuesday, March 9

Addition to the Rome Beauty

A picture of the Rome Beauty sent by a reader and fellow blogger has been added to my post on the apple.  Just an FYI folks, didn't want you to miss it!

Saturday, March 6

Story of an Apple: Rome Beauty

Named not for the great Italian city, but rather for a small town in the southern most tip of Ohio, the Rome Beauty, also known as the Red Rome or simply Rome, like many apples of its time was discovered by accident.  Joel Gillet (also spelled "Gillett" or "Gillette" by his descendants) encountered a seedling tree in a shipment of trees he had received from a nursery that did not appear to match the rest of the stock he had ordered. He gave it to his son Alanson, who chose to plant it on the banks of the Ohio River.  That was the year 1817.  Several years later the tree was found still alive and bearing deep red, slightly glossy fruit.  His cousin Horatio Nelson (or H.N. Gillett) taking the initiative, took cuttings of the young tree and started a small nursery of the apple he called "Gillett's Seedling."  The apple gained popularity as a good cooking apple as well as a staple in cider.   A decade or so after it was first discovered, the apple was renamed the Rome Beauty after the Township from which it descended.  The town of Proctorville, on the banks of the Ohio near where the original tree stood until the 1850's, calls itself the "Home of the Rome Beauty Apple." 
Rome Apples, Cornell Orchard, October 2010
 In the 20th century, the Rome's popularity as the "Queen of the Baking Apples" had made it a popular apple in the expanding market created by the Washington apple industry.  Part of what the Washington Apple Commission referred to as the "Big Six" which also included Reds, Goldens, Winesap, Jonathan and Newtowns, the Rome also found a home in orchards of the eastern and mid-Atlantic Sates.
Though it has not made much headway in the ever expanding line-up of eating apples such as Fuji, Gala and Honey Crisp that have flooded the market over the past decades, the Rome as remained a staple for many growers because it is a reliable producer, not susceptible to biennial bearing which plagues some apple varieties.  Romes also bloom relatively late in the spring putting them out of harm's way for late frosts which can turn a bumper crop into slim pickings (literally) for many apple growers in northern climates.  The Rome has also found a following among growers in more temperate regions because it has a relatively low chilling requirement. This allows it to be grown in places that experience little or no winter.  A grower in the warm valleys of California talks about his experience growing and harvesting Romes in his blog Apples and Oranges which you can read here
He had this to day about them, "Rome Beauty grows well in the tropics also, but doesn't have the same zing as in colder climates.  The Rome you see in the supermarket is Red Rome, a better-colored but inferior-tasting sport."  

Photo from Kevin Hauser, author of Apples and Oranges and owner of Kuffel Creek Nursery.  Apples are from the mountains around where he lives in southern California 

Wednesday, March 3

Apples in Mythology: The Golden Apple Part II

After exploring some of the Greek myths involving golden apples, I now want to make a trip many miles to the north, where the apple found its way into Norse mythology.  Many parallels exist between the apple's representation in Greek and Nordic myths, chiefly the belief that the apple offered immortality and youth to those who ate it.  However the apple's association with fertility in Norse mythology also draws on similarities to other cultures. 
As in Greek mythology, the Nordic gods kept the apples in a protected garden, where they were a great source of envy among mortals.  The Norse goddess of spring Idun (also Iðunn) is believed to have been the guardian of the life-giving apples.  The granter of youthfulness and fertility, most likely because of her association with apples, Idun was the wife of the skaldic god Bragi and grew her apples in the land of Asgard.
A paradise full of fruited fields,  rolling hills and rivers that ran though lush forests, Asgard was also the site of a banquet held each year by Idun where she would serve apples to the gods allowing them to maintain their youthfulness.  Mortal giants jealous of those who would never wither and die, ceaselessly made attempts to possess the apples by trying to lure Idun away from Asgard.    This was finally achieved by a shrewd and witty giant named Thiaze (also Þjazi).  Having the ability to take the shape of many living things, Thiaze in the body of an eagle swooped down amongst a gathering of gods feasting on an ox, where he was able to convince them to give him the choicest cuts of meat.  One of these gods was the fiery tempered and mischievous Loki known for being a trickster.  Upon realizing that he himself had been duped, Loki stabbed Thiaze with a sharp branch in a fit anger.  Thiaze took to the sky and Loki, unable to release his grip from the branch was pulled towards the heavens.  Begging to be let loose, Loki made a deal with Thiaze.  In exchange for his release Loki agreed to lure Idun and her apples away from Asgard.  He accomplished this by leading Idun to a nearby forest where he told her he had discovered apples that would be of interest to her.  He told her it would be wise to bring along her own apples so that she might compare them to the ones he had found.  Once out of Asgard, Idun was no longer protected and Thiaze still in the form of an eagle swooped down, snatching Idun in his talons and took her back to his home. 

Thiazi flying away with Idun as Loki looks on

In Idun's absence, the Nordic gods soon began to gray and turn frail.  Knowing they must have the apples in order to maintain their youth, Odin the most knowledgeable and powerful of the gods, summoned the aging immortals to his hall for a meeting.  It was quickly determined that Loki was the last one to see Idun and her apples.  Odin decided to give Loki a chance to redeem himself by bringing Idun back to Asgard.  He was told that if he could not accomplish this, he would be the first of the immortals to perish. 
Loki knowing he only had one chance to to make things right, took the form of a falcon and made his way to Jötunheimr the land where Thiaze resided.  He found Idun alone, as Thiaze was out hunting.  He turned her into a nut and carried her back to the safety of Asgard.  Thiaze upon returning gave chase, pursuing Loki all the way back to Asgard.  Flying above Asgard Thiaze was caught in the flames of a great fire built by Odin, Thor and the other gods where he burned and fell to the ground his head crushed by the great hammer of Thor.  Loki having returned safely turned Idun back into her true from, thus allowing her to feed bits of apple to the withering toothless gods slowly restoring their youth and immortality.  

See: The Golden Apple Part I