Saturday, October 18, 2008


The apples on the tree outside my window are ripe. They are beautiful, and they taste pretty good, too, though they're a bit wormy, since nobody sprays the tree. (Extra protein, as my dad puts it.) They are Cortlands, which are a cross between the popular McIntosh (a cultivar originally from Canada) and the Ben Davis, a variety now rarely grown because its keeping and shipping qualities are no longer needed in the days of the 1,500 mile salad.

The old apple tree is left over from the apple farm which used to be here a few decades ago. The old farmhouse is a short walk away, and is now just one of many houses standing alongside a major thoroughfare. You can tell it's the old farmhouse, though, because its architecture is older than the other houses, and because of the apple cellar beside it.

The first time I saw the apple cellar, I had no idea what it was. It's just a door in the side of a grassy hill. Looks kind of like I always imagined a hobbit house would look, except the door isn't round. Eventually one of the apple farmers in the area explained it to me. (There are still plenty of apple farms around here, but nobody uses apple cellars any more.)

In the old days, farmers would store apples over the winter in apple cellars - storage rooms built into hillsides. The apples would be packed into barrels with straw, then stashed away underground. The ideal apple cellar was cool and humid, but not freezing.

Apples were often bred for their "keeping" qualities - how well they withstood winter storage. Unfortunately, keeping and taste are inversely related. It was a trade-off. Storage was harder in more southern areas, where it was warmer, and often, they would grow "keepers" that no farmer would consider growing further north (because they tasted awful).

I love the wide variety of apples you can get in the northeast. I grew up eating only Red Delicious, with occasional Golden Delicious. To this day, my dad will only eat Red Delicious. I even took him to a pick-your-own apple farm, where we picked dozens of different kinds of apples - and he only liked Red Delicious. I find Red Delicious very bland myself - though if eaten immediately after picking, even Red Delicious are very tasty.

Northern Spies are one of my favorite varieties. They were considered "dessert apples" - the kind you bake with. ("Spies for pies.") They are luscious when just picked. They were considered good keepers in the old days, though a bit prone to bruising. By modern standards, though, they don't store well. They don't shrivel or rot easily, but they get soggy pretty quickly after picking. Modern Americans expect their apples to be crisp.

I have a feeling what's happened in the world of apple farming is probably typical of farming in general: the varieties grown are designed for the world of air freight, refrigerated shipping, and controlled atmosphere storage. The apples we grow now are not the kind our great-grandparents grew - and are perhaps ill-suited for a low-energy world. Recently, there has been increased interest in heirloom varieties...but the ones people want to grow tend to be the ones that taste good but don't store well, not the ones that store well but don't taste very good.

The harvest season is winding down here. It's more or less over by Halloween. The farmer's market shuts down, the pick-your-own farms close, the farmstands pull down their shutters. The local farmer's market, jam-packed a couple of weeks ago, was pretty quiet yesterday. I spent less than $10, but got a nice haul:

That's a cannonball pumpkin, a mini squash, a spaghetti squash, a quarter pound of mixed organic greens, three baby bok choy, and a bunch of apples, including Empire, Gala, Northern Spy, Mutsu, Jonagold, and Winter Banana. I am probably not going to eat the mini squash. That's a Halloween decoration. The cannonball pumpkin will be a Halloween decoration...and then a pumpkin pie. :-)

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