Henry David Thoreau thought quite highly of apples, calling them “the noblest of fruits.” Planting apple orchards was one of the first tasks early settlers undertook. Most early apple varieties were used to make hard cider, a staple of everyday life back then, and a popular beverage making a comeback today.
From the early 1800s to the early 1900s, the United States had about 8,000 varieties of apples. Tart, sweet, complex, spicy, crisp, aromatic ... the choices were endless. Since that time, more than 85 percent of these varieties have been lost. Only about 11 modern varieties currently make up 90 percent of the apples Americans find on the grocery store shelves. The remaining 10 percent are old-fashioned varieties that are often hard to find, such as Winesap, Northern Spy, Cox Orange Pippin, and Thomas Jefferson's favorite, Esopus Spitzenburg.
Well-known varieties such as Gala, Fuji, Red Delicious, Rome and McIntosh are favored by commercial growers because they ripen consistently together, ship well, and resist bruising, satisfying the current consumer demand for a beautiful, flawless apple. The old saying, “beauty is only skin-deep,” aptly applies to apples. By considering only the perfectly skinned, shapely, shiny apples, consumers are missing out on a vast array of tantalizingly tasty, robust-flavored apples that often put the regular grocery store apple to shame.
For growers and breeders of modern varieties, old apple varieties can be a genetic gold mine, allowing breeders to capture particular traits such as an apple that stores well, breed it into another variety, and combine the good qualities from both. So, it’s important to preserve these genetics for future use.
Thanks to the locavore movement and the growing interest by consumers to know more about the food they purchase and feed their families, and a renewed interest in cider making, many heirloom apple varieties are making a resurgence. We owe a debt of gratitude to dedicated fruit growers who realized decades ago these old varieties were disappearing and made it their life’s work to find and preserve as many of them as they could. One of those dedicated growers was Herb Teichmen of Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm in Eau Claire, Michigan.
A Man & His Apples
The fruit farm, started by Herb’s parents in the early 1920s, now includes the fourth-generation in the family operation. Located 70 miles east of Chicago, the Teichmans' 400-acre fruit farm is located in Michigan’s bountiful “fruit belt.” With its rich, sandy soil, moderating lake-effect weather, and desirable elevations, southwest Michigan has almost ideal growing conditions. Here, small family farms continue to be the mainstay of sustainable agriculture, keeping Michigan a leader in fruit production for well over a century.
“We used to pick thousands of bushels of peaches and sell them at the fruit auction. I never liked the feeling of getting a check with no handshake or thank-you. I just didn’t get the satisfaction you get from selling directly to people.” It was this desire to interact with customers, be able to share the experience and joy of growing, picking and savoring the natural goodness of fruit straight from the tree that drove Teichman to transition some 30 years ago to a direct-marketing and U-pick fruit farm operation.
Teichman also had the desire to save and preserve the many heritage apple varieties becoming increasingly difficult to find. “After my dad died in 1968, while cleaning out his desk, I found several notebooks. In the margins were comments about many apple varieties he knew as a youngster and their different flavors” The family orchard already had 40 to 50 varieties growing but Teichman decided he would try to find and propagate the other varieties his father had noted.
As America’s diverse, genetics-filled apple orchards were slowly, quietly disappearing, it seemed few people noticed. But Teichman did notice and began doing something about it. “When I found out an old orchard was going to be bulldozed I'd go get cuttings and graft them onto new rootstock.”
As his search for old apple varieties began in the 1970s, it led him to two other avid apple collectors, Robert Nitchski and Theo Grootendorst. Both Nitchski and Grootendorst were nurserymen and orchardists (both associated with Southmeadow Fruit Gardens, still in business today in Baroda, Michigan) who were in the business of preserving and propagating old apple varieties for sale. This trio of apple detectives, driven by the same passion, combined efforts and began collecting and sharing scion wood, grafting and growing new trees of old varieties.
Taste the Difference
Some 40 years later, the Teichman family apple orchard has a collection of more than 200 heirloom apple varieties bearing bushels of fruit for sale at the orchard. Here, customers can savor a wide range of flavorful and unique apples. Though this is a small number in comparison to the thousands of apple varieties found a century or two ago, it is a fine collection of some of history’s best tasting apples.
According to Teichman, it isn’t just enough to grow these old varieties, customers must taste them to really appreciate their unique flavors. At the fruit farm store and gift shop, apple tasting is a must for visitors. The Teichmans love for visitors to taste apples they wouldn’t normally get to experience at a regular grocery store.
A wide array of apples: large, small, perfectly shaped, oblong, knobby, smooth and flawless, rough and mottled, are all ready to be sliced and sampled. “Wow, that’s delicious!” “Umm, so crisp and juicy,” and “Oh, that’s excellent” are the comments coming from a crowd of tasters. Most are surprised an apple they’ve never heard of, and doesn’t fit the typical apple stereotype, could taste so good. Oh but they do.
The apples of days gone by were often used in a variety of ways. While many were multi-purpose, some were better for eating fresh from the tree, or for cooking, baking and drying, others for cider, and still others were favored for when they ripened and how well they kept in storage. Here are some of today’s most popular varieties of antique apples, but there are many more from which to choose:
• Calville Blanc d’Hiver: Still considered the gourmet culinary apple of France. It has tender, spicy flesh and is packed with Vitamin C, exceeding all other eating apples and even the orange! Excellent for baking, but also good eaten fresh or for applesauce.
• Esopus Spitzenberg: Spicy in character, the flesh is pale yellow, firm, crisp and tender to taste. Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple keeps well when harvested during early October.
• Golden Russet: One of the most famous old American russet apples, fine-grained, yellowish, crisp flesh, packed with sugary juices. Medium size, excellent keeper when stored properly. Ripens late October.
• Margil: Firm yellowish flesh with a sugary, luscious aromatic flavor. Cultivated around 1750, the Margil stores well, and is excellent for blending in ciders. Ripens late September.
• Northern Spy: Excellent long-keeping pie apple found in a New York seedling orchard before 1800. The white flesh is juicy, crisp and mildly sweet. Noted for high vitamin C content. More tart than most popular varieties. Commonly used for desserts and pies, but is also used for juices and cider. Ripens late October, excellent storage.
• Grimes Golden: A very old (known in 1804) West Virginia apple planted for home use and highly prized as a dessert and cider apple. It has a crisp, yellow, tender flesh and a rich aromatic and distinctive flavor. An excellent all-purpose apple. Grimes Golden is self-fertile and is an excellent pollinator for other apple varieties. Grimes ripens in late September and stores very well. Believed to be a parent of Yellow Delicious.
• Ashmead’s Kernel: Many consider this one of the finest flavored apples. A golden brown russet, medium in size with crisp yellowish flesh that is sugary, juicy, and aromatic. An ancient English variety about 300 years old. It ripens in late October and is an excellent keeper.
• Cox’s Orange Pippin: In England, Cox is considered one of the finest apples grown. Medium-sized with red and yellow skin, tender, juicy, yellow textured flesh. Ripens end of September.
“Have a Tree-Mendus day,” is the cheery goodbye Herb Teichman sends away with each departing customer. Visitors depart, arms laden with bags and baskets of apples, picked fresh from the orchard. At 86, Teichman’s love for growing, and putting directly into the hands of his customers, some of the freshest, highest-quality fruit one can find, never waivers. “We’re here for people who appreciate the quality of fruit we produce. Without them, we wouldn’t be here,” he says.
If not for dedicated fruit growers such as Teichman and many others, who’ve spent much of their lives preserving old apple varieties, most, if not all, of them, would have disappeared by now. “We have work to do in the orchard everyday and I don’t really call it work. When you’re having fun you can’t really call it work.”
Store only apples that are firm, free of bruises and blemishes.
Storage temperature should be below 40 degrees F with the optimal storage temperature at 30 F to 32 F with a relative humidity of 90 percent. Apples freeze at about 29 degrees. A mere 10 degrees warmer, and they’ll ripen twice as fast.
Larger quantities are best stored in a root cellar, cold basement or unheated building, if possible, but do not let apples freeze. Store in crates or insulated boxes and cover with a damp cloth. Check on a regular basis to ensure no damaged apples are spoiling.
If storing in the refrigerator crisper drawer, place apples in a plastic bag with a few holes in it, place a damp paper towel in bag and seal.
For some delicious, apple-based recipes, see:
Hazel Freeman is a freelance writer and avid gardener. She writes, gardens and enjoys nature, along with her husband Ellis, from their home in the lovely rolling hills of Monroe County, Ohio.