Fall means apples – part 1

 

Scott Farm

Gastronomeg:

Fall means apples, of course, but specifically to me it means bright pink applesauce. Every year in recent memory, we’ve made batches of applesauce from the red-veined apples that fall (copiously in good years; in less auspicious ones we have to be quick to beat the deer to the punch) from the tree that grows behind the old barn cellar at my mother’s house. For years we referred to this tree as the “Duchess Apple Tree.” But lately,  with further research, we discovered that it probably isn’t a Duchess, after all.

At any rate, it is a good thing that this tree’s apples make such good sauce, since they aren’t good for much else – they’re too small to eat, have mealy flesh, and are not good keepers. But the apples cook down easily and the sauce is brightly colored from the red veins, with a nice balance of tart and sweet – it doesn’t need more than a touch of sugar (in some years none) and never more than the merest whisper of cinnamon. More seasoning would cover up the great apple flavor, but a tiny bit serves to bring it more sharply into focus, like salt does in baking or with savory food

As I learn more about apple trees, I am increasingly curious about the origin of this and other fortuitous old backyard apple trees. Who knows what variety it really is (if any ‘variety’ at all). We suppose that it was planted deliberately (the placement beside an old barn seems unlikely to be accidental), but whether it was a lucky seed or a carefully grafted cutting, it is now impossible to tell.

Scott Farm

The first thing you learn when  you learn anything about apple varieties is that apple trees do not breed true from seed.  Since they (necessarily, as they are not ‘self fertile’) cross-pollinate with other nearby apple trees, an apple seed winds up being a random sampling from a large sea of genetic soup. You never know what exactly you’re going to get from a seed. This explains why apples in the woods are hit or miss, and mainly miss – what in cider making would be called ‘bitters.’ But I recall, from childhood equine rambles, occasionally coming across a tree with sweet, reasonably edible golden-fleshed apples that had resulted from a happy mingling of wild apples with the remnants of old cider orchards that are found near ruined house cellars all over the Vermont woods.

The only way to be sure that an apple variety is going to be what you want it to be is to propagate vegetatively – that is, to take a cutting from the tree you want and graft its living tissue (cambium) onto the cambium of another tree’s rootstock. The tissues will grow into one another and, above the graft, you will have an exact genetic copy of the tree you wanted to propagate. It is possible to graft as many varieties onto a rootstock as it has branches, creating a novelty tree of multiple varieties.

New varieties can be selectively bred, of course, and this is what is done these days (and these days more likely under a microscope than in the field). But in olden times, new apples were more often the result of happy accidents than careful breeding, either when a roadside or hedgerow tree from a dropped seed was found to produce especially good apples or when a batch of seeds (usually planted by settlers for cider-making) turned out a tree that produced something better than the run-of-the mill bitters. A new variety was then declared and reproduced from cuttings. “Heirloom” varieties can be traced back to these chance happenings, although fine trees were often reproduced mainly on a local scale. It is fun to think that when you eat a Baldwin apple today, you are eating an apple that has genetic makeup that is essentially identical to the original tree that was found in Wilmington, Massachusetts.*

These ideas (and more) were rehashed for me at Scott Farm’s annual heirloom apple tasting over Columbus Day weekend. We tasted 15 different apple varieties (out of the 70 that are grown on the farm!) and were regaled with stories of their origin by Zeke, the orchardist, who is a wealth of information (and whose sense of humor is as tart as some of his apples).  The favorites among our group, which included the California contingent of my family, here on a baby-worshipping mission, were the spicy/tart Esopus Spitzenburg, the creamy-fleshed and sweet Roxbury Russet, and the sweet/tart Ashmead’s Kernel. We acquired two bags of  mixed apples and proceeded to churn out apple desserts (pie, and a delicious crumble) for days.  Per Zeke’s urgings, we limited our cinnamon usage to the bare minimum (actually, he advised none at all, but our habits die hard. We used only a dash, we swear!) to enjoy the pure apple flavors of the old varieties.  These desserts were a revelation for the complexity of flavor given by using multiple kinds of apples, and interesting apples at that, in a dish.

pumpkins and apples

Of course none of these fine apples went into something as lowly as applesauce, but my summation of applesauce advice works along the same lines. To get good applesauce (and by that I mean flavorful and interesting), use good, preferably sweet-tart, apples. If you don’t have something wonderful (like my mom’s formerly-known-as-Duchess apples), use a mix of apple varieties. Last year you could get big bags of mixed apples for $2 at Union Square. Sadly, due to an early-summer hail storm, most growers decided not to turn on their coolers for winter storage, so they were selling apples off at fire sale prices. We profited from the loss with many good batches of applesauce. If you go to ‘pick-your-own’ places, you can also ask about getting a crate of seconds or ground-falls (in the country sometimes called ‘deer apples,’ which I thought sounded nice until I saw some rather unsporting hunters loading them in their rifle-bedecked truck).  At any rate, no fancy apples are needed for applesauce; just cut off the bad bits.

When making applesauce, I always leave the skin on since it adds color and a bit of flavor. Plus, who wants to peel 5 pounds or more of apples?  So here’s my applesauce recipe:  Cut the cores out of  at least 5 pounds of apples. Put the cut apples in a deep pot to steam, with a few inches of water in the bottom (if you can keep the apples out of the water, all the better; I find the pasta insert of my pasta/stock pot works well). Cook until the apples are soft (they’ll start to puff up off the skins), turning a couple of times to make sure they’re all evenly cooked.  Then run the cooked apples through a hand-cranked food mill (an indispensable kitchen tool, for me – perfect for applesauce and also potatoes, which can’t go in the Cuisinart); you can use either the coarse or medium screen, if yours is adjustable, depending on how chunky you like your sauce. It’s the food mill that allows you to leave the skins on, since it presses the fruit off the skins for you. Taste for seasoning and add a bit of sugar and a whiff of cinnamon to taste (go easy; it needs less than you think to bring the flavors into focus without covering them up. I’ve been known to stop at 2 TBSP of sugar and a dash of cinnamon for two quarts of applesauce, and often don’t sweeten at all). Applesauce can be easily frozen or canned (pack into sterilized jars and process pints for 20 mins in a boiling-water bath).

October in Vermont


* Or nearly so, depending on how many generations your tree is removed from the first tree. There can be slight mutations as the tree is reproduced from subsequent iterations with different rootstock, etc. But since “heirlooms” have never been widely reproduced for commercial use, they generally tend to be close to the original.

 

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