Every fall I get caught up in the romance of heirloom apples. Dozens of varieties fill the bins at my local co-op, all different colors, sizes, textures, and flavors – with written guides that explain each kind. I fill my bags with Lady Apples, because I like the story of Renaissance women who kept the aromatic fruit tucked in their bodices. I add Sheep’s Nose Apples because I like the name Sheep’s Nose - and maybe a giant Wolf River apple for pies.
These traditional apples connect us back to a time of kitchen gardens and small orchards that grew quirky fruit, a time when it mattered that Wolf River apples were good for baking pies because everyone baked their own pies - before bland, easily shipped apples took over America’s fruit bowls. Once forgotten varieties are today’s most talked about varieties. In fact, admitting that you enjoy our modern apples has become downright unfashionable .
That might be going a bit too far.
Let me be unfashionable.
My favorite apple is the Cortland, developed in a very non-romantic way at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. It’s a workhorse apple, sweet with a good but not unusual flavor. It produces a fine pie. I worked in an orchard in high school that grew Cortlands and eating one straight from the tree reminds me of cool, sunny afternoons I spent there happily avoiding my homework.
I think the Honeycrisp is fun to eat. It’s introduced a new age in apple texture - not just crisp, but bursting with... well… juice. Not exactly with flavor, that’s a bit lackluster, but it’s still fun.
Then there are the new and unnamed apples grown by accident - from seeds dropped by untended parent trees. Usually, their fruit tastes terrible, not like their parents at all... but sometimes it tastes great, and more often it makes a great cider. In Shoreham, the Lost Apple Project at Shacksbury Cider is building from that possibility. Shacksbury talent scouts are scouring Vermont’s fields and roadsides to discover promising fruit from unknown trees, fruit that now adds a flavorful dimension to Shacksbury’s traditional hard ciders.
Of course, trees don’t have to be used for their fruit - my mother has a new apple tree that began life in her compost pile and now produces inedible fruit, but looks lovely growing by the entrance to her garden. She’s started a handful of other trees from seeds she found sprouted in apple cores. Their fruit may be equally inedible... or may be the next Cortland, you never know. The world of future apples is full of possibilities.
Maybe we should brand these apples “heirlooms in progress” or “wait and see heirlooms”. Or maybe assign apple vintages, we can say “1868 and 1991 - those were two great years, try an apple started then.”
Or, even better, maybe I’ll just dedicate autumn to trying as many different apples, of any vintage, as I can find.