Monday, May 31

Story of an Apple: Macoun

I was introduced to the Macoun (pronounced McCowan in some circles) for the first time this past fall picking at Moose Hill.  Having come from the Midwest I was unaware of, but quickly discovered, the reverence that many New Englanders have for this apple.

The Macoun is a product of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York.  It is a result of a cross between McIntosh and Jersey Black (also Black Jersey) and was introduced in 1923 to growers.  The apple was named after a Canadian fruit grower, W.T. Macoun who was a horticulteralist at the Dominion Experimental Farm from 1898 to 1932, overseeing 24 different experimental farms across Canada.  He was also the founder of the Ontario Horticultural Association.  
The Macoun is a later season apple, usually harvested sometime in early to mid October.  At Moose Hill it is usually harvested around the same time as the Goldens and only shortly before the Empires and Reds.  When ripe, it has a deep purple or almost "black" hue, a quality reminiscent of one of it's parents.  The Macoun has a short stem, which allows it to be "pushed" off the branch as the fruit reaches maturity.  This creates a small window of time after apple shows it's true colors, but before it is a carpet under the picker's feet.  The fruit needs direct sunlight to develop the dark hue it is known for.  Because of this color picking is often needed to harvest an ideal crop.  Even with color picking, there is marked difference in the color of truly ripe apples and those found in the depths of a large tree (see below).

Macoun apples: on the left are apples picked from a smaller open tree and on the right fruit from the
inner branches of a larger tree.

Perhaps it is the Mac in them, but Macouns are not ideal keepers, although new storage techniques have allowed growers to sell them through most of the winter.  They can also be a challenge for growers in their tendency to give a heavy crop one year and then almost no apples the next.   When they do bare heavily however, as they did the year I picked at Moose Hill, the sight of a tree laden with deep purple apples in the late October sun is one of the many sights that reminds me why I am an apple picker. 

Sunday, May 23

Story of an Apple: Mother

I would like to tell the story of an apple, lovingly named the Mother, in honor of my own mother who was born 63 years ago on this day.  My mom started picking apples near my home town while I was still in grade school.  In many ways she probably inspired my own exploration into apple harvesting and for several years we picked apples on the same crew.  Over the past 15 years or so she has been a picker at three different orchards around Gays Mills and although she no longer straps an apple bag on her shoulders, she can still be found among the trees in the fall as an employee of Sunrise Orchards.  I am thankful for all that she has taught me over the years.  Happy Birthday Mom!


This small to medium sized apple also known as American Mother originated in the mid 19th century in Worcester County, Massachusetts.  The apple, prized as a good eating apple when fresh, but not a good keeper, found popularity during the 1920s and 1930s.  It can be found in many old orchards dating back to those times, but has more recently also been grown by hobby growers.
The fruit has been described as having an almost "balsamatic aroma" or even a suggestion of vanilla.  The Mother tree blooms late in the spring and is usually ripe by mid-September, although the they often require extensive thinning in order to bare fruit of significant size as well as to avoid biennial baring.  The mother is also valued for it's resistance to both scab and mildew, which can plague many varieties.  


Sunday, May 16

Fruit Set

This past Friday I made my way out to West Haven Farm, which is just a mile and a half up the road from me.  When I say up, I mean it in more than one way, especially when the trip is on a bike.  The apples, which are in the "back" of the the 3/4 acre orchard, past the peaches and apricots, were showing a promising crop.  Most of the trees at the local orchards had petal fall a week or two ago.  With fruit that has already set, they were able to pull through the cold nights of this past week that made it down into the high 20s.   Most everyone I have talked to has indicated that bloom was about 2 weeks ahead of "normal" this spring.  This could translate into an earlier harvest for many varieties.  Harvest date seems be dictated much more by when a tree blossoms, than the variable weather conditions of the summer months.  It is encouraging to know that the first apples will be picked in less than 3 months!

Monday, May 10

Apple-Cheddar Strudel

In honor of my new job, I thought I would dig an apple recipe out of the original 1977 (hand written) Moosewood Cookbook I have sitting on my bookshelf.  The recipe does not go so far as to recommend varieties of apples to use, but I would venture to guess that apples that pair well with cheese, such as Haralson, would do well in this recipe.  In general I would go with apples that are not too sweet, but have good flavor.  An assortment of varieties would probably be ideal.  


Filling:                                                          The rest: 
            6 medium cooking apples                              1/4 lb. (1 stick) butter
            1 cup grated cheddar cheese [sharp]           10 strudel leaves
            1/2 cup honey                                                   1/2 cup wheat germ
            1 tsp. cinnamon
            dash of salt
            1/2 cup chopped walnuts
            rind and juice from 1 lemon
            1 cup bread crumbs (fine)
     optional: a handful of raisins

Combine all ingredients, except butter, strudel leaves and wheat germ.  Heat oven to 375.  Lay a leaf of strudel dough before you (use a clean wooden or formica surface), stretching out lengthwise away from you.  Butter it liberally and gently, using a pastry brush.  Sprinkle lightly with wheat germ.  Add another strudel leaf and repeat the buttering and sprinkling and layering until all six leaves lie assembled before you in a neat pile.
With the strudel leaves in front of you pile the filling at the bottom of the sheets and roll away from you, tucking in the sides. (optional: brush the folded sides with butter before you roll)
Carefully lift the roll (use spatulas to help you, if necessary) and place it on a buttered tray.  Brush the top with butter and make several diagonal slashes, cutting (with serrated knife) through the top layer of dough to the filling.  If desired, you can sprinkle extra wheat germ on top of the rolls.  Bake 30-35 minutes - until golden and crisp.  Cut it warm or cold, using a serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion.  Serve warm or cold with ice cream or whipped cream.

Thursday, May 6

Replacing the US apple crop?

Just heard a blurb on NPR about a new bill U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer wants to introduce that would provide money in the form of grants and low-interest loans from the US Department of Agriculture.  The bill is based on a similar Canadian program.  Up to 20 million dollars could be provided to farmers as early as November of this year to pay for new trees to be planted the following year.  The idea seems to be to facilitate the transition of "older" varieties such as McIntosh and Red Delicious to more "popular" varieties such as Galas and the beloved Honeycrisp.  More info on the bill can be found here.

The government has a long history of dipping its wick in the agricultural wax so to speak, from farm subsidies to water rights.  However, I hesitate to think this is all together a good thing.  Continuing in a mono-culture mentality will only create the same boom and bust phenomenon that we have seen with Red and Golden Delicious.  I think money could be better spent intoducing greater variety into the apple industry, through start-up grants to small farmers, further research into disease and pest management techniques and cultivation of the US and world palate to be more acepting of a greater variety of apples. 
I understand that we live in a global age where "competition" with Canada and China is a real concern for many apple growers, however success can sometimes be found by moving outside of the accepted market rather than competing within it.  This is all from the perspective of a non-grower, only my opinion.  Input welcomed.

Tuesday, May 4

Story of an Apple: Ben Davis

The Ben Davis is another important, but widely forgotten apple, popular during the 1800s.  According to some accounts it had similar popularity to the Baldwin, but an even larger geographic range with orchards popping up over much of the southern and southeastern United States in the later part of the 19th century.  In 1905 it was "unquestionably the leading commercial sort and the most popular apple grown south of the Baldwin region." The apple found its home in the "southern belt" a region that stretched east to west between the 32nd and 42nd parallels.  For those of you like me, who have know idea what this translates into geographically, this is a region that stretches from mid Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to northern Indiana and Ohio and very southern New York.  Numerous Ben Davis orchards could be found as far east as Virginia and as far west as Arkansas and Illinois by the late 1800s.   The apple, which needed a long growing season to reach its full potential of flavor and quality, thrived in more southern reaches and found only marginal success in the orchards of northern New York and New England, where the Baldwin flourished.
Although the origin of the Ben Davis is somewhat murky, the most commonly accepted history is that it's story began in Kentucky in the year 1799.  That year, William Davis and John Hills left Virgina for Kentucky and settled near Davis' brother,  Cpt. Ben Davis in Berry's Lick, Kentucky.  Shortly after, Hills traveled back east to either Virginia or Carolina and returned with some young apple seedlings.  Some of these were planted on the land of Cpt. Ben Davis and root shoots from one of these trees was later used to plant a small orchard.  The apples in this orchard began to draw attention and as they gained recognition as a noteworthy variety, suckers from the original Davis orchard were planted around Kentucky and Tennessee.  The apple found its way further north when the Hill Family moved to Illinois, taking trees with them to plant at their new home.  By 1865 millions of Ben Davis trees could be found throughout the United States, especially in it's southern reaches. 

The Ben Davis was not thought to have particularly exquisite flavor, especially in more northern climates, where the seasons where not long enough for it to reach full maturity.  When grown in the south, it would ripen later and keep longer in storage.  Its main draw was as a market apple, due to its ability to withstand transportation.  It was described as being think-skinned, colorful, not showing bruises easily and having "a good appearance in the package after being handled and shipped in the ordinary way"
Growers also favored it as a dependable, hardy and vigorous variety that came into bearing relatively early in its life and bore heavy crops.  It was easily propagated and would blossom late in the spring giving it an advantage over earlier blossoming cultivars that were more susceptible to late frosts and freezes. 
Like many apples of its day the Ben Davis was pushed out of the orchard by new varieties that were seen as superior in flavor and quality.  By the early 1900s shipping methods began to improve and varieties such as the Ben Davis, which were favored largely for their ability to travel well, were no longer as highly valued.  Although the Ben Davis is for the most part out of cultivation, some of its qualities can still be found in the Cortland, one of it's progeny that is still popular today.

Saturday, May 1

May Day

A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.
--Henry David Thoreau

 Happy May Day!  As we mark one of the Pagan cross-quarters, I often feel as though we are at the apex of spring.  With the world around me in full bloom (especially this year when many flowering trees are days or even weeks ahead of "schedule") it feels as though the senses are often in overload.  Seeds that have been planted are poking though the soil, (the weeds even faster) and the quality of the green around you feels almost surreal.  The spring has it's own fleeting feeling.  With each day their is something new to see, if you take the time to look.  The next day it may be gone.  It is a continuous reminder of the life that hides under the humus and within the bud.

Walk, put your hands in the dirt and inhale deeply.