I want to take you to a very special orchard in Bolton, Massachusetts. It’s one of a growing number of American orchards specializing in antique or “heirloom” apples.
This is Nashoba Valley Winery, where apples, grapes, peaches, and other fruits are grown and then turned into wines, spirits, and multi-course meals at the on-site restaurant, J’s. It’s a remarkably beautiful setting of rolling hills and ponds and trees and vines heavy with ripe fruit. And my favorite corner, naturally, is the special antique apple orchard in the back of the property. You have to make an appointment to pick here—there are about 90 varieties of antiques, but only a few trees for each, so they have to keep track—but anyone can come.
The exuberant tree I photographed above is a winter banana that looks like something out of Dr. Seuss. These are some of the prettiest apples you’ll ever see, though the flavor won’t knock your socks off. It’s pleasantly sweet, just not really vibrant. It’s a good keeper, though, and after a few months in storage can, indeed, develop banana flavors.
Two of my favorite antique apples are the Ashmead’s Kernel and the Calville Blanc d’Hiver.
Ashmead’s dates back to the turn of the 18th century in England and has an incredibly rich flavor that reminds me of honeyed Champagne. Calville is a French variety from the late 1600s and is the traditional apple used in the wonderful caramel apple tart called tarte tatin. It is firm and very tart when first picked, but it grows sweeter in storage.
Now a note on “antique” or “heirloom” apples. In the apple world, these interchangeable terms describe traditional apple varieties that have been reproduced for some number of decades or centuries via grafting. In common parlance, heirlooms are defined by what they are not: that is, newly bred, mass-produced commodity fruit. That’s not a terribly scientific definition, but it functions well. The Granny Smith you buy at Shaw’s? Not an heirloom. The Seek-No-Further you picked up at the local farmers’ market? An heirloom.
With other plants, such as berries and tomatoes, heirlooms are defined more rigorously,
describing varieties grown from seed and pollinated by natural means, such as insects or wind (this is in contrast with hybrid plants, in which one plant is deliberately hand-pollinated with the pollen from another plant). But since apples don’t reproduce true from seed and must be cloned via grafting, that definition doesn’t apply. Still, calling an apple an antique or heirloom connects us to the long history of this fruit and hopefully gives us a sense of wonder that we can still eat the same fruits that our ancestors did.