Braeburn, McIntosh, Gala, Empire -- the names are lovely, old-fashioned, even romantic. Nittany. Elstar. Fuji. Paulared. Crispin.
Apples. There's something about the fall that brings apples to mind, the crisp days and chilly nights, the glorious colors of the fall foliage . . . somehow the crunch of a good apple, the tart-sweet flavor, goes right along.
But for people who like to mix a little excitement with their tradition, there are lots of "new" varieties of apples to try. Some are traditional favorites that are coming back into popularity, such as Stayman, Ida Red, York and McIntosh, and some are varieties developed more recently, such as Mountaineer, Jonagold and Gingergold.
Fall always brings a few more fresh apples to market, but consumers are right to think that this year the variety is greater than usual, said John Rice, of Rice Fruit Co. of Gardners, Pa., the largest fresh-apple packing company in the East. The trend to more varieties is fueled partly by consumer demand for better-tasting apples, he said, and partly by competition from smaller retailers who are offering customers fruit "boutiques," with plenty of unusual varieties.
Often, he said, customers are introduced to new varieties at farm stands, where the grower or owner can offer someone a Mutsu or a Criterion and say, "try that, and tell me if it's not the best apple you've ever tasted."
At Baugher's Apple Orchard and Packing House, which also has stand, new varieties are put out for customers to sample, said Marjorie Baugher. The long-time family business in Carroll County is growing and selling such new varieties as Jonagold and Gala, as well as the usual Red and Golden Delicious. Sales of Gala, "not a pretty apple," took off when people got a chance to try it, Ms. Baugher said. "People are remembering it very well now."
At Summit Point Raceway Orchards, in Summit Point, W.Va., all the varieties are less usual -- some brand new, such as the Mountaineer, developed especially for the orchard, and the Gingergold, discovered in Virginia about four years ago -- and some truly old-fashioned, such as the Lady Apple, which has been grown in France for 300 years. "We don't grow any Red Delicious," said Barbara Scott, co-owner, with her husband Bill, of the raceway complex.
October is the peak month for apple buying, and not surprisingly, it's also designated National Apple Month. "Apples always sell better in the fall," said Jerry Purdy, director of produce purchasing for Giant, which has begun carrying some locally produced apples as well as the imports from the western United States and as far away as New Zealand in its Baltimore-Washington area stores. People who couldn't wait for it in the spring are tired of the "soft" fruit like peaches and nectarines, and long for the crispness of an apple, Mr. Purdy said.
Giant is going through 16,000-17,000 40-pound cases of apples a week, compared with the 8,000 cases a week over the summer, and is offering Braeburn, Gala, McIntosh and Rome Beauty, in addition to the popular Delicious varieties.
Picked by hand
While the traditions of apple growing remain strong -- they're still picked by hand, mostly by workers on ladders -- changing technology has also had an impact on the industry, allowing apples to reach store shelves at a more desirable ripeness.
Apples sometimes got a bad rap in recent years, because fruit bred to look beautiful lacked the old-fashioned apple taste people remembered, or because storage and handling left the apples too hard or too mushy. For convenience, production growers generally harvest all the apples on a tree, regardless of ripeness.
At the Summit Point orchard, which sells apples to area supermarkets such as Safeway, Giant and Magruder's, and to specialty retailers such as Fresh Fields and Sutton Place Gourmet, eight kinds of apples are growing on dwarf trees on three-wire trellises, a technique imported from Europe, where land is at a premium. The orchard was planted in 1985 on land near the raceway.
But besides saving space, the small trees and the trellising system allow more sun to get to all the apples on the tree, for better ripening, Ms. Scott said. It also makes the apples easier to pick -- the tallest tree is about 6 feet, so no one has to get up on a ladder, and some apples can be left on the branches until they are riper.
"It looks more like a vineyard than an orchard," Ms. Scott said. The system also allows the orchard to produce twice as many apples per acre (about 1,000 bushels) as a regular orchard with full-height trees, she said.
Stretched out on the trellises are trees bearing Gala, Empire, Jonagold, Nittany, Crispin, Stayman, Mountaineer and Lady Apples. The Lady Apples are tiny, 1 1/2 to 2 inches around, half red and half gold, and mostly used for garnish and decoration. The Crispin is large and green and very sweet, and is considered the gourmet apple of Japan, where its name is Mutsu, Ms. Scott said.
Storage and handling have also changed. At Rice Fruit, apples are stored in high-tech chambers that are cold (31 degrees) and air-tight. When the rooms are sealed, the air is pumped out, the oxygen stripped out of it, and the nearly pure nitrogen remaining is pumped back in. Since ripening is a process of oxidation, removing the oxygen halts it. The process allows apples to be shipped closer to perfect ripeness, Mr. Rice said.
All the changes add up to apples that taste better than the production apples of the last decade. Today's apples come in all shades of red, green, yellow and in combinations of the three, and they may not be cosmetically perfect. "People are discovering if they want something to taste good, it doesn't have to look like plastic," Ms. Scott said.
The search for better taste
"People are looking for apples of better flavor than the red ones usually in the grocery store," said Mr. Rice, who with his three brothers and fellow owners, are the seventh generation of Rice family fruit growers in Adams County. They grow 700 acres of apples among other tree fruits.
Their own apples make up just 20 percent of the output of a million bushels of apples per year that Rice Fruit handles. The other 80 percent comes from 50 other growers in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Rice Fruit also ships apples all over the world, from Brazil and Central America to Scandinavia, Mr. Rice said.
Rice Foods grows more than 20 kinds of apples, including Red and Golden Delicious. Others in their line include Fuji, Braeburn, Paula- red, Granny Smith, Elstar, Cortland and the new Criterion, a relative of the Golden Delicious. Mr. Rice noted that some growers are planting antique apple varieties, but "it's more of a hobby" than a business venture, he said.
"I've got an apple planted that is called Ashmead's Colonel. It's at least 100 years old, a brown russet, hard as a rock, juicy, with a sweet-tart apple flavor. There's a little bit of a market, some specialty stores will carry an apple like that."
Mr. Rice had some advice for people who want to try the new varieties, but aren't sure how to use them: "Experiment," he said. "If one variety doesn't work out in something, try another one."
Ms. Scott said apples should be really hard when they are purchased. She suggested pressing firmly on one end or the other with your thumb. If the flesh gives, the apple is too soft. And all apples should be stored in the refrigerator, she said, no matter how beautiful they look sitting out.
Here are some recipes for apples. The first two are from the Raceway Orchards.
Sliced apples with poppy seed dressing
4 tablespoons orange juice
4 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons honey
1/4 teaspoon poppy seeds
dash of salt
3-4 Gala apples
Combine first five ingredients in a small bowl, stir well and chill. Cut apples into slices. Arrange on lettuce leaves. Serve with the dressing.
Cheesy apple salad
6 Empire apples, unpeeled and cut in thin wedges
2 cups diced celery
1 20-ounce can pineapple chunks, drained
1 8-ounce package Cheddar cheese, cubed
3/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Combine first five ingredients in mixing bowl and set aside. Combine sour cream and mayonnaise. Mix well. Pour over apple mixture; toss gently. Chill 1 to 2 hours. Serve on lettuce cups.
The next recipe is from "A Basket of Apples," written and illustrated by Val Archer (Harmony Books/Crown, 1993, $16). Ms. Archer notes it is good on grilled fish, swirled into soups or pasta, or stirred into cottage cheese to fill a baked potato. (She also notes that the bright green color will fade after a couple of hours, though the salsa can be kept for up to a week in the refrigerator.)
Makes 1 cup
3/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves and some stems
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
1 6-ounce Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped (see note)
grated rind and juice of 2 limes
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 green chili, deseeded and chopped (wear rubber gloves)
1 teaspoon confectioner's sugar
3 tablespoons light olive oil
salt to taste
Wash and dry the mint and the cilantro. Put them into a food processor with apple, lime juice and rind, garlic, chili and sugar and process until well chopped, gradually adding the olive oil. Season with salt. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Note: You could also use Empire, Jonagold, Braeburn, Gingergold or Gala for the salsa.
The next recipe is from "Classic Home Desserts," by Richard Sax (Chapters Publishing Ltd., 1994, $29.95). It produces a custardy batter that is poured over the apples and baked until crusty gold, Mr. Sax notes.
Ligita's quick apple cake
3 medium-sized tart apples such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and thinly sliced (about 3 cups) (see note)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
vanilla ice cream, for serving
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 10-inch Pyrex pie pan.
Toss the apples in a bowl with the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the sugar and the cinnamon. Spread the apples evenly in the prepared pan.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat; cook until lightly golden, about 7 minutes. Watch carefully to avoid burning. Pour the clear, browned butter into a bowl, leaving any sediment or foam in the pan.
Stir the 3/4 cup sugar into the butter. Gently stir in the eggs; stir in the flour until it is blended. Spoon the batter evenly over the apples and spread into a layer. Sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sugar.
Bake until lightly golden and crusty, 40 to 45 minutes.
Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Cut into wedges and serve from the pan warm or at room temperature, with vanilla ice cream.
Note: You could also use Gala, Jonagold, Nittany, Crispin, Stayman-Winesap or Rome Beauty for this cake.
Fresh-picked at the orchard
A lot of people have a favorite spot to buy apples; some even like to go out and pick their own. Here's a selection of orchards in the area that have apples for sale to the public, including old favorites and some of the new varieties. Some allow picking and some don't. If you want to pick, call to find out if it's allowed, and what kind of apples are available for picking.
* Weber's Cider Mill Farm, 2526 Proctor Lane, Parkville, (410) 668-4488.
L * Baugher's, 1236 Baugher Road, Westminster. (410) 876-5642.
* Lohr's Orchard, Snake Lane off Route 22, Churchville. (410) 836-2783.
* Larriland Farms, 2415 Route
94, Woodbine. (410) 442-2605.
* Rock Hill Orchard, 28600 Ridge Road, Mount Airy, (301) 831-7427.
* Bell Hill Farm, 15202 D Catoctin Mountain Highway (Route 15), Thurmont. (301) 271-7264.
* Catoctin Mountain Orchard, Route 15 1 1/2 miles north of Thurmont. (301) 271-2737.
* Scenic View Orchard, 16239 Sabillasville Road, Sabillasville (4 miles north of Thurmont on Route 550. (301) 271-2149.
* Pryor's Orchard, 13841 B Pryor Road (off Route 15), Thurmont. (301) 271-2693.
* Maple Lawn Farms, 2885 E. Maple Lawn Road, New Park, Pa. (800) 832-3697.