The choice in apples used to be limited to Delicious, Golden Delicious and McIntosh, with perhaps a handful of local varieties.
Not any more.
This season, in at least one place -- Larry's Markets, an independent chain of supermarkets in Seattle -- you can find 20 different kinds of apples, piled high in huge bins. Many are grown locally in the Pacific Northwest. The rest are from other apple-growing regions in this country and abroad. Most of these varieties were not on the market 10 years ago. Some -- Liberty, Gala, Criterion, Fuji, Akane -- you may never have even heard of.
While four apples still account for well over two-thirds of the country's commercial crop -- Granny Smith, an Australian import, joined the Big 3 about 15 years ago -- the other varieties are coming on strong.
One beautiful apple just isn't enough any more. Consumers are demanding quality apples and they want variety.
"It's a diverse market," says Dr. Bruce H. Barritt, horticulturist at the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research Center in Wenatchee, Wash. "Don't try to tell a consumer which apple has the best flavor."
To satisfy consumer and grower demand, plant breeders here and abroad have been working on disease-resistant apples that taste better, are easier to grow and keep longer. The development process is a lengthy one, taking from 22 to 40 years or more from the initial cross to the introduction of a new variety.
An important breakthrough was the development of new disease-resistant strains. Liberty, a crisp apple, now widely accepted in New England, was crossed at Cornell University's New York State Agricultural Research Station at Geneva, N.Y., in 1955 and introduced in 1978. Freedom was introduced four years later, but is still not widely available.
New apples are starting to replace McIntosh, a variety that will not ripen uniformly without Alar. Empire, also developed at the New York research station, is the most widely planted variety in the Northeast. "It eats extremely well," says Ralph J. Baldasaro, head of the New York & New England Apple Institute. "Empire has the tang of a Mac and the sweetness of a Delicious." Not too surprising since it is a cross between McIntosh and Red Delicious.
Other McIntosh-type apples are gaining popularity, Jonamac in rTC the East, and Spartan, developed in British Columbia, in the West. Jonagold, a Golden Delicious and Jonathan cross, was introduced by the New York Station in 1968 and is now the most widely planted apple in Europe. A large, yellow-red apple with a rich flavor, it is excellent for cooking as well as eating out-of-hand.
Fuji, the best-selling apple in Japan, may become the apple of the '90s in the United States. Fuji does not look like much, but appearance is secondary to its firm, crisp texture and sweet flavor. And this apple, better than any other so far, retains its crispness after several months in a home refrigerator. Grower-packer R. C. Greg McPherson is grafting Fuji onto Red Delicious stock. "You can knock them around," he says, "and they keep forever."
Another Japanese import is Akane (pronounced ah CON nay). It has been dubbed the "lunch box apple" because, says Kris Merritt of Merritt Orchards near Bellingham in western Washington, "It ripens right in the first part of September, just in time for school." Old-timers come to Merritt's for the Akane too; it reminds them of the old-fashioned snow apple known as Fameuse.
Mutsu is a Golden Delicious crossed with Indo, a Japanese variety. It is called Crispin in Britain and parts of the Northeast where it isgrown extensively.
"We call it the Christmas apple," says Tom Berry, referring to the Mutsus he grows along with 40 other new and unusual varieties at his Canyon Park Orchard, north of Seattle. Mutsus can be eaten immediately, but Mr. Berry also hoards them: He wraps them in newspaper and stores them out in a shed, his own version of cold storage, where they turn yellow and sweeter as they mature.
Not all apples come from carefully controlled breeding programs. Criterion, a large apple with a sprightly flavor, was found in an orchard near Wapato, in Yakima Valley, Wash. It is thought to be a cross between Red and Golden Delicious or Red Delicious and Winter Banana.
Ginger Gold is another so-called chance seedling. Clyde H. Harvey, a Virginia apple grower, came across a small tree uprooted by HurricaneCamille in 1962. He replanted it and it bore its first fruit in 1975. Ginger Duncan-Harvey, his wife, describes Ginger Gold as crisp and very juicy. "It looks too good to be true, just like a wax apple, but the taste is real -- a distinct sweet-tart flavor."
Thirteen of the most promising new varieties are listed according to harvest date on the accompanying chart. The earliest are usually the sweetest; the late ones, higher in acid, tend to be the keepers.
Apples are often divided into two groups -- dessert apples, which are eaten fresh, and cooking apples. A few varieties are good for both. There are three kinds of cooking apples: apples that get mushy when cooked, hence make good applesauce, such as Empire; firm-fleshed apples that hold together, good for pies and tarts (Jonagold); and tender-skin varieties that hold their shape when baked (Melrose).