Cosmic Cocktail in 2 weeks: Get your ticket today before they sell out.

For some, old apples outshine new

The Baltimore Sun

If you are trying to broaden your appreciation of apples, pick something old, not new.

That is what apple connoisseurs Ben Watson and Chuck Shelton told me recently.

Take, for instance the Honeycrisp. This is a relatively new apple that has won praise from many eaters, including me, for its crisp, sweet flavor. Watson and Shelton, however, were dismissive of it.

"The Honeycrisp is OK," said Watson, who lives in New Hampshire and is the author of a new book on apple cider, Cider, Hard and Sweet. "It tastes way better than the Red Delicious," he said, "but it is kind of watery."

Shelton, whose family operates Vintage Virginia Apples, an orchard and nursery near Charlottesville, Va., said the Honeycrisp "is way down on my list of favorites."

Shelton prefers varieties that have a little age on them, say a century or two. These include the Albemarle Pippin, Ashmead's Kernel and Black Twig.

Watson, pressed by me to name some of his favorites, distinguished between dessert apples, the kind he eats out of hand, and pie apples, which are used in baking. The Opalescent, Mother and Esopus Spitzenburg are, he said, his favorite dessert apples. His pick for "pie apples" is Rhode Island Greening.

My reaction to these picks was, "Say what?" I had not heard of many of these apples, even though some of the varieties have been around for more than a hundred years.

The Spitzenburg and Albemarle Pippin apples were the favorites of Thomas Jefferson, Watson told me, even though the Spitzenburg trees had a hard time growing at Monticello, Jefferson's home.

Watson and Shelton are advocates of heritage apples, which may not be gorgeous, but have long histories and distinctive tastes. They don't hold a grudge against newer apples. Shelton, for instance, mentioned Gold Rush, introduced about 1994, as a variety that "displayed antique apple characteristics." But they don't want the antique varieties to go unnoticed, or to disappear from the agricultural scene. In addition to selling apples, Shelton's Vintage Virginia Apples operation sells apple trees as well.

Watson allowed that today's apple growers are in a tight spot. "Orchardists want to grow what is profitable, what is marketable," he said. But in addition to well-known newcomers, apple growers and apple eaters should try some vintage varieties, he said.

There is an aesthetic component, I think, to the eat-old-apples movement. It is best expressed on the Web site of Greenmantle Nursery, a Garberville, Calif., business that deals with vintage fruit.

"Fruit varieties are indeed cultural artifacts, like music and painting," the Web site says. "As such, they reflect the values and sensibilities of the people who created or selected them. To partake of a [Spitzenburg] apple links us to the spirit of eighteenth-century aficionados."

There is the fact that times, and apple-eating habits, have changed. Nowadays, most folks eat apples as snacks. Years ago, orchardists grew certain varieties for particular uses, Watson said.

"Vintage apples were not meant to be all things to all people," Watson told me on the phone. "Some had very specific uses. Some were grown just for apple butter, others to make apple vinegar, others apple brandy." In his book, Watson lists 72 kinds of North American apples recommended for cider-making.

As someone who has trouble remembering the passwords for his computer, I thought memorizing data about apple varieties - the Baldwin are sweet, the Gravenstein are tart, the Cortland are astringent and Black Twig are aromatic - seemed like a lot to process. But I could see that noting differences in apples, like comparing types of wines or beers, might be an appealing form of recreation, a challenge, something to shoot for.

Vintage apples can be hard to find. Shelton told me that his orchard sells apples Tuesdays through Saturdays from 2 p.m to 6 p.m. and that he would have a selection of uncommon apples available at a shindig at the orchard the first Saturday in November. But the orchard in North Garden, Va., 10 miles south of Charlottesville, is a long way to go from Baltimore to taste apples, even ancient ones.

Instead, I recently moseyed around at a couple of local farmers' markets. I found an old apple, a smokehouse, at the Greenwood Farm stand at the Tuesday market in Cross Keys. The farm's owner, Donald Burton, told me how the apple got its name. "It was grown on a tree that stood next to a smokehouse," he said.

Later, when I relayed Burton's tale to Watson, Watson checked the apple's history. The smokehouse first "came to notice" in 1837 in Mills Creek, Pa., he said.

So not only did my smokehouse apple have firm texture and a good mixture of sugar and acid, it also had lineage.

"The smokehouse is a decent apple," Watson said.

I felt strangely gratified to get this approval.

I could envision myself becoming an apple snob, tracking down a Spitzenburg, hunting the Opalescent, searching out the Rhode Island Greening.

But then, sitting at my desk, I got hungry. I reached into my briefcase and pulled out another type of apple, one I had bought at a McCleaf's Orchard stand at the Tuesday morning Pikesville market.

It was a Honeycrisp. It was good, for a youngster.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad