Stalking the Roxbury Russet, finding the Bartlett Pear

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of sophomores at the John O’Bryant school in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Their teacher, Ian Doreian, contacted me several weeks back to say that his students were going to do a special workshop on food writing and would I like to come in and discuss what I do? Of course! The kids were bright and welcoming and meeting them was a wonderful treat.

The class

Ian Doreian

We talked about cookbooks, restaurant criticism, and writing in general.  And there was one fact I particularly wanted to share: not far from where we were standing, the first Roxbury Russet tree sprung up around1635. It’s the oldest American apple still being grown today, a richly flavored keeper, and you can find it at heirloom orchards like Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton, Massachusetts, Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, and Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont. I promised to bring some apples in the fall so the students can taste them.

The one thing I couldn’t offer was the specific site of that first orchard. I’ve looked into it, but I have yet to get a clear answer. But right near the school, I did find something very special. Ian had directed me to Fort Hill, one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods (and famous for its distinctive 1869 water tower).

Fort Hill Tower

He had noticed the remnants of an old apple orchard on Highland Street. I drove over to see it.

Old Highland Street apple tree (look for the thicker trunk in the center)

The old trees were untended, scattered among newer growth, and I doubt they are bearing much. And, of course, none of them date back to that original orchard. But they are living proof of the agricultural heritage of this area.

And here’s more proof.

Bartlett Street

Bartlett Street was once the site of an 19th century fruit orchard owned by Enoch Bartlett. On this property were some old British pear trees called Williams, but Bartlett renamed them after himself. And thus we had the Bartlett pear, now available in most any supermarket.

I’m anxious to dig deeper into Roxbury’s fruit history, and maybe even plant some new Roxbury Russet trees on the O’Bryant campus through the Boston Tree Party. If we can pull that off, this apple will have truly come full circle.

A Different Sort of Antiquing

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.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

After a lifetime of annual one- or two-week stays on Cape Cod every summer, we decided to mix things up and rent a cottage on Lake Champlain this year. Life has been so busy these past few months that I arrived with a limited knowledge and no expectations, so imagine my delight when I realized that we were staying on none other than South Hero Island, also known as “Apple Island.”

An apple island vacation for me? This felt like kismet. We decided to head to the site of Vermont’s first commercial orchard, Allenholm Farm.

Owner Ray Allen can trace his family’s history on that piece of land back to 1870, and their U.S. residency much further. He also makes a mean pie crust, and you can purchase fresh apple pies in the farm’s store.

There was some early harvesting going on when we were there, mostly Jonamacs. Just up  the road, Hackett’s Orchard also had some Paula Red, Tydeman Red, and Early McIntosh.

It’s beginning to look a lot like autumn.

We also spent a lot of time at the Shelburne Museum, where the campus is dotted with dozens of apple trees.

Of course, I record all this with a heavy heart, thinking of the lives and properties lost as a result of Hurricane Irene. I worry about the losses to all those VT farms in this critical growing season. It’s ironic that as we headed back home to the Boston area on Saturday to prepare for the storm, we were sure we were headed toward the higher-risk region.

One last note: Two weeks ago, I promised a follow-up demo on how to roll out pie crust. I had every intention of following through, but logistics got in the way. Several weeks ago, my family moved into a temporary apartment in anticipation of a later move to the 1920s house we’ve been renovating for the past few months. My rolling pin was safely packed into one of many boxes that is currently stored in our new basement and after a dusty half-hour of crawling among the cardboard, I simply couldn’t find it. As soon as I’m on the house and have a chance to unpack, I’ll come through with the post.