In Search Of Heirlooms

Sheep's Nose, or Black Gilliflower, discovered in Connecticut in the 1700s (Photo by Bar Lois Weeks)

Sheep’s Nose, or Black Gilliflower, discovered in Connecticut in the 1700s (Photo by Bar Lois Weeks)

THE SPECIAL, ONE-TIME e-book sale of America’s Apple continues. Now through Thursday, August 29, America’s Apple can be downloaded for the discounted price of $2.99 (regularly $9.99). The e-book can be purchased through Amazon for Kindle or as a Barnes & Noble’s Nook Book. The hardcover is available through these sites, numerous bookstores and orchard stores, and Silver Street Media.

With nearly 50 full-color photographs and a photographic index of 120 varieties grown in the United States, America’s Apple takes a detailed look at how apples are grown, and the people who grow them.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 3, “In Search of Heirlooms (and Other Varieties)”:

The apples commonly found in supermarkets represent a fraction of the varieties cultivated in America’s orchards (there are more than 7,500 apple varieties grown around the globe). Before refrigeration, orchards typically planted many varieties to extend the fresh harvest as long as possible, and apples were highly valued if they remained firm and flavorful through the winter months. With refrigeration, commercial orchards had less need for apples that might be good for a few short weeks, were difficult to grow, or bore heavy crops every other year.

Some of these older, commercially flawed varieties have died out, while others may survive in a single orchard. But a number of heirloom apples are still being grown, and finding new life as people take an interest in their unique culinary or historical qualities. Apart from their distinctive flavors, colors, and textures, these old varieties are rich in history, sometimes across continents and over centuries.

Some heirlooms, like America’s oldest apple, the Roxbury Russet (1635), named for the Massachusetts town (now a Boston suburb) where it was discovered, are valued for their superior flavor. Roxbury Russets evince regional pride, too, like two 18th-century apples named for other Massachusetts towns: Hubbardston Nonesuch and Westfield Seek-No-Further. Some heirlooms draw attention to distinctive physical characteristics like color (Black Oxford, 1790; Blue Pearmain, 1800s), or size (Twenty Ounce, 1840s).

Many of these apples have one major flaw that keeps them from the mass market. “Some varieties have nine good qualities out of ten,” says Kevin Maloney, an apple breeder at Cornell’s Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, “but the tenth one is a killer.”

An apple variety may be difficult to grow, susceptible to disease, or bear poorly. Some larger apples are lacking in flavor, some sweet-tasting ones have huge cores or tough outer skins. A visually stunning variety might yield little juice. Whatever reasons a variety does not become a commercial success on the scale of Gala or McIntosh — whether due to changing consumer tastes, horticultural issues, or because it does not ship well — it may flourish in an orchard or region where the growing conditions are just right. 

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