Another Season Begins

It has been quiet in apple land these past few months, but the trees are quite alive and if you travel to any orchard you ‘ll see baby fruits plumping up on the branches.

Down on the Massachusetts coast in April, I stopped at Dartmouth Orchards and saw these beauties just beginning to flower.




A few weeks later, we visited Old Sturbridge Village, which has an amazing collection of hundreds of heirloom apple trees. Look how much farther they had come.


Meanwhile, I have planted my very own and first-ever apple tree in our yard and I’ll post about that next time.


A Last Visit to the Orchard

A few weeks ago, I found myself with an apple emergency. I was on my way to work, thinking about the talk and apple tasting I was scheduled to give at the Dublin town library that evening and realized that the bag of heirloom apples that I had set out the night before was still on my kitchen counter. And since my kitchen was an hour away, near Boston, there was no going back.

I panicked for a half-second before I realized I was heading towards apples, not away from them. Yankee’s offices in Dublin are just about 20 minutes away from one of New England’s best orchards, Alyson’s in Walpole. There, you’ll find more than 50 varieties of the fruit, with new breeds being added every year. A quick call to Alyson’s orchard manager, a true-blue New Englander and generous soul named Homer Dunn confirmed that there were still plenty of antique and unusual apple varieties in storage and even some fruit on the trees.

An orchard in late fall is a beautiful thing, though the crowds have long gone. When I found Homer having lunch in his office, he showed me two McIntosh apples he had just picked, fruit that looked firm and healthy, despite several nights of frost and that late October snow storm.

Then he took me into the sweet-smelling storage barn, a chilly room where the apples are stored in large crates until they’re shipped or sold. Unlike some growers, Homer doesn’t keep his fruit in sealed, so-called “Controlled Atmosphere”  rooms, where fruit can be held in suspended animation for months at a time. Instead, he simply tries to get it all sold while the apples are still fresh. So the heady perfume of that barn was a rare treat.

I selected a few bags of Ashmead’s Kernel, Lady apples, Hudson’s Golden Gem, Belle de Boskoop, Reine des Reinettes, and Esopus Spitzenburg. Then Homer mentioned that one of my favorite varieties, Calville Blanc, was still out on a tree. This was surprising, given that it was mid-November and I had picked my last Calvilles in early October. But I went out to take a look. These are excellent cooking apples dating back to late 17th Century France, and they are the traditional apple used in tarte tatin. I love them for their excellent baking quality, their flavor, and their unusual knobby appearance.

Calivlle Blanc tree

The fruit was a bit past peak, having lost some of its crispness and acidity. But it had a rich sweetness and looked all the more beautiful for being the last of the season.

I thanked Homer for the rescue, passed on a copy of my book, and took one last look at the view, already looking forward to next season.

Organic Inspiration!

Michael Phillips of Heartsong Farm. Photo by Stacey Cramp for The New York Times

This article in today’s New York Times reminds me that there is still so much more to learn about apples. Always. It’s about Michael Phillips, an apple grower in northern New Hampshire who has a thriving organic orchard just a short drive from the Canadian border. I have heard so much bad news about growing organic apples in New England. How hard it is, thanks to the fact that apple orchards are essentially monocultures filled with clones—that is, a paradise for insects or diseases whose prey has little natural resistance. And unlike the drier landscapes of the West, our wet, verdant climate serves up a larger menu of potential pests.

Phllips’s success makes me want to jump in the car and drive right up to Groveton, NH. Or at least order a copy of his new book, The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way (Chelsea Green).  According to the Times, “it explains how to grow fruit with nothing more lethal than neem oil and sprays made out of liquid fish fertilizer (which has fatty acids and enzymes lacking in pasteurized fish emulsion), homegrown horsetail and stinging nettles (both are high in silica and help leaves fend off fungal disease).”

Meanwhile, I had the most wonderful visit this week to Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, NH. More on that to come soon…

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.

Behind the Scenes: Getting Ready for a TV Shoot

It’s a busy morning here in Apple Town.  I’m getting ready to head up to Gould Hill Farm to shoot a segment for New Hampshire Chronicle, which is a big treat. The subject is, naturally, apples.

It’s still quite early in the apple season and I’m told that the farm has about a dozen early varieties available: Akane, Elstar, Gala, Gravenstein, McIntosh, Milton, Paula Red, Porter, Primate, Redcort, Red Gravenstein, and Swiss Gourmet. Even after 5 years of studying apples, some of these are new to me (namely the Porter, the Primate, and the Swiss Gourmet). In 1905, the USDA cataloged 14,000 unique apple varieties being cultivated in this country. Can you imagine? Now we’re down to a fraction of that number, but it’s thrilling to know that there are still surprises out there.

Getting ready for these shoots is a good deal of work because we’ll be filming out in the orchard, which means that whatever tools and ingredients I need to cook on camera must be brought in. In place of a stove, I’ll improvise on a fold-up table and a hot plate.

Here’s the scene this morning as I set out about half the food and gear I’ll actually end up bringing. Incidentally, since we’re still waiting on the butcher block counter for the island in this kitchen, I improvised with some plywood and Mexican oil cloth. I like the look!

I also baked off an open-face apple-pear-cranberry tart this morning. You can find this recipe right here in Yankee‘s archive.

All this to make it appear as if the food just drifted down from the heavens and landed among the apple trees!

I’ll try and take some photos today so you can see how the rest of the shoot gets done. No air date yet, but I’m sure they’ll let us know soon.

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.