RICHIE DAVIS, The Recorder
GREENFIELD — There’s Old Nonesuch of Massachusetts, Paw Paw, Melvin Sweet, Cogswell, Fallawater … Do you know your apples?
Like, for example, that the first apple seeds in this country were planted three years after the Pilgrims landed and that the first named variety — Roxbury Russets — was cultivated in 1635 in Boston?
There are more than 200 apple varieties in New England, where apples have a special panache, and they’re all in a new “users guide,” ”Apples of New England,” by Russell Powell, who served as executive director of the New England Apple Association from 1998 to 2011 and has kept an “America’s Apple” blog, since 2010
Powell wrote the book “America’s Apple” in 2012, and now in paperback, after interviewing apple growers around the country to answer the basics for people about the nation’s most iconic fruit. It even included recipes.
Although the McIntosh is still the top apple in New England, representing about two-thirds of all varieties sold, there’s been a marked interest in heirloom varieties, ones Powell describes in full detail in his most recent guidebook for connoisseurs hunting for a particular variety, along with answering questions for shoppers who want to know about the apples they have to choose from in the supermarket: “What’s the difference between a Fuji and a Braeburn?” Or “What’s the best apple for making a pie or for eating?”
“Our region has a very rich tradition of apple growing,” said Powell, but he couldn’t find anywhere with that history and description all in one place, so he wrote the book.
There’s even a section focusing on Ron Prokopy, the Conway researcher who died in 2004 and whose work on integrated pest management helped many growers reduce their use of chemical sprays.
Powell’s little 214-page guidebook (The Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vt.) is packed with information about each variety, from the “superstar” Honeycrisp eating apple to the great keeper, Fuji, that was the result from pairing Red Delicious with Ralls Janet.
“The perennial question people have is, ‘What makes the best pie?'” says Powell. Although it’s possible to make one from a single variety — a Cortland or a Gravenstein, for example — the author is one of those “mix-and-match” people who loves to use Macs for their tartness and aroma, but adds other varieties for texture and a more complex flavor — say, Northern spy and heirlooms, some of which are smaller but add to the blend of succulent tastes.
Heirlooms have grown in popularity with the rise of the fresh- and hard-cider movements, again because they’re prized for the qualities of their juice and also because of renewed interest in local foods and their history.
“Because of grafting, the Roxbury Russet you find today is a literal descendant from the very first Roxbury Russet apple tree,” says Powell. “While New England today is a small part of national apple crop, we do have very rich tradition of growing apples here and the number of apple varieties discovered in the region. It all goes back to the Mayflower and evokes our agrarian roots.”
Then there’s the sheer diversity, with heirlooms exploding the kind of dazzling variety of tastes, shapes, sizes and colors that even today’s supermarkets offer.
But the diversity of yore went by the wayside since most heirlooms had a distinct flaw that kept them from being commercially viable: maybe they grew every other year, were too small or they had too large a core, or were misshapen, or maybe had a russet color instead of the shininess that sold better.
Cold atmosphere storage, which was developed in the 1940s and became widely used over the 20 years that followed, has meant that it’s common to bite into a crisp Mac or other commercial variety way into the spring. Heirlooms had been favored by growers as extending the harvest the old-fashioned way, with each variety having its short-lived harvest from July through to November. Other varieties did well because they stored through the winter without advanced technology.
Powell glows a bit as he describes his favorite heirlooms, like Cox’s Orange Pippin, dating back to 1825: “A beautiful apple, with red, orange and yellow striping, and a great, complex flavor.”
Then there’s Roxbury Russet — “A fabulous apple. People love it. But it only gets this big,” he says, holding his first two fingers a bit more than an inch apart. “So if you want to bake with them, you might put a couple in pie, rather than having to cut up 15.”
Then there’s the Baldwin, which had been the leading apple in New England and the Northeast until a bitter-cold winter freeze in 1934 killed off more than a million trees just as the hardier McIntosh trees were rising in popularity.
Like a 21st century Johnny Appleseed, Powell enjoys spreading his fascination with apples through his words.
When he goes off wandering to talk apples with people, he says, “Everybody has a story: about an uncle who had an orchard, about their favorite pie apple, or with a question about how it’s grown.”
From Winter Banana and Sheep’s Nose to Black Oxford and Hubbardston Nonesuch, and from Nodhead to Cathead, Powell’s little guidebook abounds with stories.
RICHIE DAVIS, The Recorder