STRANGE as it may sound, my first experience with an heirloom apple tree came during our family’s hunt for a Christmas tree. In November, the farm where we cut our tree allows people to reserve one six weeks or so before Christmas. While my wife and kids scoured the field for the perfect shaped Balsam Fir, I spotted a craggily, old apple tree with a few fruit on the ground.
I wandered over to see if I could identify what variety it produced and picked up the best looking one for a closer look. It was nothing like anything I’d seen before, so I took a bite. Still crisp in the middle of November, it had a spicy, sweet, tart flavor that wasn’t even close to any other apple I’d had before.
Here was something new.
Before that day, I thought I knew apples. After all, I grew up with eighteen trees in the backyard and a neighborhood full of apple growers. One neighbor had so many grafted varieties coming out of a single tree that he had lost count. But, as good as some these apples were, they were nothing like the one from that old tree from the Christmas tree farm.
Ever since then, I’ve been on the lookout for old heirloom trees. In northern New England suburbs, you can find them all over the place.
Putting a name to an heirloom apple tree
But once you find one, how do you identify it? That’s where Rowan Jacobsen’s Apples of Uncommon Character comes in. The book gives you a good shot at putting a name to an unusual apple.
Between the covers, you find more than 120 ordinary and not so ordinary varieties. Each apple write up is accompanied by a beautiful photo. It’s the kind of thing that apple lovers will enjoy leafing through to see what catches their eye. Some of the varieties that caught my attention were:
Ashmead’s Kernel: A plain, ordinary-looking apple that’s sort of like a Granny Smith with a jolt “wild child” flavor. It “pushes the extremes of honeyed sweetness and racy acidity.” Clearly Ashmead’s Kernel was selected for taste.
Roxbury Russet: “The oldest American apple, having sprung up on a hill above the Massachusetts Bay colony. It was already popular throughout southern New England in the 1600s.”
Redfield: A cider apple tree that has startling pink flowers etched with white squiggles. When sliced in half, the apple flesh is bright red with a white core, making the inside look almost like a starburst.
The apple grower interested in grafting new varieties will want to own Apples of Uncommon Character. It will help identify new grafting specimens and a wish list of apples they want to add to their own trees.
While Jacobsen’s Apples of Uncommon Character is enjoyable, it is not everything I wish it to be. Take his treatment of the often maligned Red Delicious.
It’s true that a store bought Red Delicious is always awful. These apples are as Jacobsen describes “zombie taste, and a zombie future.” but what he doesn’t consider is that red delicious grown under perfect conditions can still have the qualities that made it the most frequently purchased apple.
I know, for example, that when you harvest Red Delicious after a first frost (in September), the fully-ripe apple can develop veins of pure sugar throughout its flesh. Under these conditions, it is a fruit that is truly worthy of the term dessert apple.
More photos of apples
I also would like to see more apple photos. The book’s one big, beautiful photo of each apple makes for a great artsy, coffee table book, but when you’re trying to figure out which apple you have in your hand, a single photo doesn’t provide enough info.
Still, the heirloom apple aficionado can’t help but enjoy this book. It’s fun to peruse from one apple to another, hoping that someday, somewhere you’ll get to taste some of these not-available-in-supermarket varieties.
Have you read Apples of Uncommon Character? What did you think? Let us know in the comment section below.
Other articles from SHF you might like: