Everything You Need To Know About Heirloom Apples

They may not be the prettiest varieties, but they sure are the tastiest.

August 30, 2011

A few years ago, I saw an ad that showed a grid of apples. Their varied shapes and colors made them intriguing but, according to the ad, problematic. One was too square, another too lumpy, a third too long, and a fourth too dull looking. The way to solve all these "problems" was to turn them into juice, the product being advertised. That way, one would completely bypass their quirky personalities. The goal was to eradicate difference in favor of sameness.

But it's the differences among apples that we should value, especially the old, late-season varieties for which high praise is due. There have been passionate fans and growers of apples for generations. For example, The Apples of New York, published in 1905, lists hundreds of varieties, with full descriptions and illustrations of the fruit documented. One looks at all these age-old heirloom varieties with their wildly differing shapes and colors, stripes and spots and unfamiliar names, and wonders, where did they go? Mostly, they died out, the victims of changes of taste and mass marketing. But some fine apples remain, which is why we must support antique-apple orchardists, who continue to grow and propagate the heirloom apples varieties, and who might even ship them to us to taste or to grow in our own gardens.


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This past apple season, I had the good fortune to have a surfeit of exceptionally fine apples. Each time I bit into one, I was reminded what a luscious, complex fruit the apple can be, well worthy of its iconic status in America. Unfamiliar to me (though common to friends on the East Coast) were some of the earlier apples like Cortland, Empire, and Macoun. Later, other varieties arrived from apple farms around the United States, treasures that included Esopus Spitzenburg, Ashmead's Kernel, Calville Blanc d'Hiver, Maiden Blush, Cox's Orange Pippin, Grimes Golden, and the very small Pitmaston Pineapple.

They were too special to enjoy alone, so I hosted a small apple tasting. We sliced the apples into wedges, thoughtfully nibbled, and then gave our impressions. Later, we enjoyed the remains with cheeses and roasted nuts. You might organize a similar gathering with friends and family, or for your local community garden.

Tasting Notes
Pitmaston Pineapple is not a pretty apple—small and with leathery dull green skin. But after a few bites, the words "floral, sweet smelling, with a hint of pineapple" were being spoken. A sweet, juicy little apple, perfectly lovely for dessert.

Calville Blanc d'Hiver, a 16th-century French dessert apple, is a winter apple, one that doesn't ripen until October. It's smooth-skinned, pale yellow, but with tiny red dots and an oddly lumpy shape that reminded me of a Wolf River, one of my favorite pie apples. Our group determined that it had an earthier nose than Pitmaston but with a hint of spice. Its faint tartness was appreciated, the acidity balancing its rather full sweetness. Yet it was early in its season and so may not have been at its best. After harvest, it should rest until it develops a gorgeous aroma before being eaten.

Maiden Blush was a lovely-looking apple with a rich perfume, but its texture had not held up in shipping. Putting that aside, it was admired for being not only pretty but very fruity, highly perfumed, with complexity and a fleeting tartness.

Ashmead's Kernel drew the comment "Now we're talking apple!" Here was another dull-looking, russeted apple that one might easily pass over, but its rough exterior concealed complex flavors that were lively with a tart, acidic edge. This is a famous old English apple that, like the Pitmaston Pineapple, is considered one of the finest dessert and cider apples.

Cox's Orange Pippin, a 19th-century English apple, is another classic dessert apple best enjoyed a few weeks after picking. Handsome with yellowish-orange skin and an underlying blush, it has fine-grained and firm flesh, full of juice and richly flavored. "Floral" was a descriptor the tasters used, but the scent had spicy and nutty tones—almost, but not quite, like a quince. Cox's Orange Pippin also ripens late and keeps through the end of the year.

While Newtown Pippin was Washington and Jefferson's favorite apple, Esopus Spitzenburg also grew in Jefferson's garden. Originally a New York apple with deep red-orange fruit, Esopus Spitzenburg might be recommended on looks alone. The flesh is aromatic, crisp, more yellow than white, and firm; tastes a bit tart; and ripens about a month before the other apples we tasted. It's floral, and layers of flavor made it extremely well liked, certainly more so than Grimes Golden, which came off as delicate (or insipid) and not as great as we had hoped, but it's a late apple and we were eating it before harvest time. This pretty apple hails from 18th-century West Virginia and was long considered one of our finest. An oblong fruit with yellow-green skin and russet patches, it's a parent of Golden Delicious.

Less exotic apples, ones often found in grocery stores and farmers' markets, were sampled, too. Cortland, with tart, white flesh, had a solid "appley" flavor; Macoun was honeyed, with warm-spiced flesh; Empire, a pretty round, red apple with white flesh, boasted a lively flavor, honeyed but also a little tart. I used these to make free-form tarts, using just a little sugar and melted butter and no cinnamon or spice at all so that they could be truly tasted. Tarts made from these flavorful apples were preferred to those made with supermarket apples.

The exquisite, late-season dessert apples we sampled need not be limited to eating out of hand. Amy Traverso, author of The Apple Lover's Cookbook, reminded me that Calville Blanc d'Hiver is the traditional apple for making tarte Tatin and claimed that Esopus Spitzenburg holds up well in baking. Traverso has even used Ashmead's Kernel for baking, but says its tartness is better suited to cider than sweets. Grimes Golden, on the other hand, is terrific in buttery cakes, and Cox's Orange Pippin does show up in English apple desserts when the tarter Bramley isn't called for. All of these apples make great applesauce—something I make frequently, often with mixed varieties but always including some with red skins for their color. They can also be quartered, cooked in a pan with a little butter and apple juice, and served as a very straightforward but aromatic dessert.

Biting into a crisp apple right off the tree, one that snaps in your teeth and sprays juice everywhere, is a wonderful experience. But some apples continue to develop once they're picked, losing acidity and gaining perfume and complexity. Some apples need this time to come into their own, while others degrade to some degree, yielding crispness to softness, smooth flesh to grainy. Late-season apples benefit from sitting around for weeks (or more) before eating. Apples that ripen late have hard flesh and are likely to store well, which is why they can be enjoyed during the very last months of the year. Early-ripening apples have softer flesh and do not store well. The lovely Yellow Transparent apples that appear in my farmers' market in July are there for a short time for this reason.

Apples behave differently depending on where they are grown. For example, Northern Spy is crisp when grown in its New York home but turns out mealy when grown in southern states. But there are apples well suited to warmer southern temperatures. Their names give them away: North Carolina Keeper, Ozark Gold, Arkansas Black. And while you might savor an apple by itself for dessert, apples are famously good paired with aged cheeses, sometimes to the benefit of the apple. Although Grimes Golden was on the weak side when tasted alone, its flavor became more aromatic when accompanied by a slice of aged Gouda cheese.