Concerns about the quality of supermarket fare are prompting interest in heritage and artisan foods. For example, the nonprofit Slow Food USA declared 2010 “The Year of the Heirloom Apple” in an effort to shine a spotlight on the numerous apple varieties we’re on the brink of losing. North America was once home to about 15,000 apple varieties. In the late 1700s, hard cider was North America’s most popular beverage. During 1767, the average citizen of Massachusetts drank more than 35 gallons of cider. Now an estimated four of five apple varieties unique to the continent have been lost from commerce. And these days most Americans have never even tried a fine, fermented, dry cider.
So when MOTHER EARTH NEWS was invited to participate in a coordinated effort of national magazines to decorate the President’s guesthouse and the State Department building in Washington, D.C., last holiday season, we focused on the beauty of heirloom foods. We coordinated with orchards and cideries around the country to showcase America’s best apple varieties and hard ciders to fit with our theme: “An Extravaganza of Apples.”
We displayed more than 50 apple varieties in the historic Adams Reception Room in the State Department’s Harry S. Truman Building throughout December 2009, and these were seen by hundreds of guests, including diplomats, senators, representatives and foreign leaders. Besides being delicious and wonderfully fragrant, each apple variety brought with it a unique history. We provided information about each variety, courtesy of Apples: A Catalog of International Varieties by apple expert Tom Burford. Here are just a few of the scrumptious varieties we featured:
Arkansas Black originated in Benton County, Ark., in about 1870 and is speculated to be a seedling of Winesap. Medium in size, the color is a lively red, deepening on the sun-exposed side to a purplish-red or nearly black. The yellowish flesh is hard and crisp, with a distinctive, aromatic flavor. It’s resistant to cedar apple rust, and appears to be less subject to damage from codling moth larvae due to its thick, tough skin.
Ashmead’s Kernel was first raised in about 1700 by Dr. Ashmead, a physician in England. The medium, flattish, round, sometimes slightly conical fruit is russeted golden brown with an orange or reddish-bronze cheek. The crisp, yellowish flesh is tinged green and is juicy and aromatic, with an acidic yet sweet flavor. Storage for weeks or months mellows and enhances the fruit for dessert use. Burford describes it as “an apple not for sissies” because of its complex flavor. This classic dessert fruit ripens in late September and early October, and almost always ranks in the top 10 at apple tastings.
Cortland, a cross of Ben Davis and McIntosh, came out of the New York State Experimental Station in 1898. It was introduced commercially in 1982 and has a number of strains, including an early-ripening one called Early Cortland. The skin is dark red with a dusky blue cast over a yellow background, and it may be more than half blood red. Sometimes dark red stripes show. The flesh is juicy, fine-grained, tender and white, and it is slow to oxidize when exposed to air. The highly productive, vigorous tree begins to bear early.
Lady Apple has been known in France as “Nome Api” for more than 300 years. One of the first European apples brought to America, it is thought to have been found in the Forest of Apis, in the region of Brittany, France, and was recorded in 1628. It is small and flattish with tender, white, crisp and juicy flesh. Much of the effervescent flavor is in the skin, which is shiny and ranges from creamy yellow on the shade-grown side to a deep, glossy crimson on the sun-exposed side.
Newtown Pippin is the original name of the most famous Virginia apple, now called Albemarle Pippin, or just Pippin. It was recorded in 1759 and is thought to have originated early in the 18th century on the Newtown, Long Island, N.Y., estate of Gershom Moore. There is a report that the first Moore to settle in Newtown Village brought it as either a seed or a young tree from England in about 1666. The yellowish flesh is firm, crisp, juicy and subacid, with a clean, fresh taste. Newtown Pippin is an all-purpose apple that develops optimum flavor after a few months of storage. Cider made from the fruit is clear and considered to be of the highest quality.
When the State Department unveiled its gorgeous rooms in all of their holiday splendor at the Magazine Showcase reception, hundreds of guests tasted handcrafted hard ciders from all over the country, compliments of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.
Many guests said they were amazed by the exquisitely complex and balanced flavors the cider makers had achieved by selecting the best apple varieties adapted to their regions. It was a delight to see so many conscientious artisans preserving the legacy of rare heirloom foods for generations of cider drinkers to come.
The State Department’s chef, Jason Larkin, was so pleased with the cider offering that he says he hopes to make it a holiday tradition. “It was an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to serve such a wide variety of handcrafted apple ciders,” he says. “It is our continued goal at the Department of State to showcase American artisan food products to our distinguished guests. Every cider was truly unique and reflective of the apple varieties and techniques used.”
We would like to thank the following orchards and cideries for donating their high-quality goods to educate more people about unique, regional foods. You can find orchards and cideries in your area through Local Harvest, but if you’re lucky enough to live near one of these businesses, be sure to visit!
Heirloom Apple Donors
Artisan Apple Cider Donors
Tabitha Alterman was project director for the Magazine Holiday Design Showcase in Washington, D.C., where she fell in love with adorably tiny Lady apples.