Thursday, September 10, 2009

Heirloom Apples

Heirloom Orchards Apples

Metropolitan Market, $2.49/lb

The first day of my freshman year of college I took a "Red Delicious" apple from the dining hall and placed it on a shelf in my room. I'd heard rumors that the cafeteria produce was irradiated so I figured I'd do a little low-tech experiment. When the school year ended, I took the apple down and threw it in the trash. Under its blanket of dorm dust, it was just as shiny, red, and rock-hard as the apples I'd eaten throughout the year--and presumably as tasteless.

After college I spent two years living in a small English village that holds an "Apple Day" festival each autumn. Apples were celebrated in all their solid, semi-solid, and liquid forms. There was a bake sale, apple champagne, and fresh cider, courtesy of an ancient stone-wheeled press and a very patient horse. Among the attractions was a leathery old man that a few of us called the "apple whisperer". Bring him a branch, leaf, or fruit from an unidentified apple tree and he'd tell you the make and model, then diagnose any ailments. I particularly loved to watch him take on a mystery apple; after giving it a long and serious look, he'd whip out an old wood-handled Opinel, excise a wedge, and pop it in his mouth in less time than it would take for me to find a clean cutting board. After a few seconds of furious chewing, he'd spit into the garbage and pronouce, "Dropsey's Amber Fleshpot grafted onto Blackgold Pucker; wants fertilizing." It was tremendously good regional theater.

Another booth sold a bewildering array of heirloom apples. My favorite of all was the tiny Egremont Russet, named for the lord of a nearby village and for the fruit's potato-like papery brown skin. Its creamy-white flesh tasted of honey, roses and jasmine. The first year, I bought a couple of pounds in spite of the stallholder's warning that they "wouldn't hold". I remember being surprised at how quickly they started to go soft, and then delighted that I had a good excuse to eat them one after another. Not in a million years would I trade an over-the-hill Egremont Russet for a dozen ageless, tasteless Red Delicious.

More recently I was delighted to find a selection oddball apples from Heirloom Orchards at a nearby grocery. I bought one of each and had my own tasting. My favorite of the bunch was the King David, a small apple as shiny and red as a garnet, with a sweet-sour tang reminiscent of Sour Patch Kids.

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