Fall has arrived: Heirloom tomatoes and zucchini at the farmers’ market have made way for squash and apples. And those who are lucky enough to live in an apple growing region have the best fall weekend activity waiting for them: apple picking, visiting a cider mill, munching on apple cider doughnuts and baking apple pies galore.
Originally from what is now Kasachstan, apples are America’s favorite fruit – they are super healthy, convenient to carry around as a snack, and there seems to be an apple for every taste: sweet or sour, firm or soft. Some better for baking, some better for eating. 100 varieties of apples are currently commercially grown in the US, but only a handful of variety makes it to the grocery stores and markets: over 90% of the global apple trade is being serviced with only four apple varieties.
Feel like you’re loosing out on flavor experiences? That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
How many apple varieties are there? 2,500 apple varieties can still be found growing in the US. They are not commercially cultivated, but are surviving in backyards of homes and in abandoned orchards. Among them the small and tart American Crab Apple – the only native apple variety. Some people even say there were close to 7,000 (!) different varieties grown in the US just 200 years ago.
Would it not be fun to taste them all? Granted, probably not all of them were super tasty eating apples. The settlers brought apple trees with them from Europe – a great choice because apples blossom relatively late compared to other fruits and have a very low risk of frost damage as a result. So they were more robust and could be grown further north than many other fruits. But in the early years the apples continued to spread over the US as seeds (the first records of European apple trees being planted by the colonists date back to 1629!). Seeds are considered an inferior way to grow new apple trees, as the cross-pollination in the wild can lead to random varieties that are often too sour or bitter to be good eating apples. That is why for apple trees, selected varieties are usually grafted on rootstock to control the variety the tree will bear.
But the early settlers continued to grow many trees from the seed their trees produced and they did not seem to mind that much. Probably also because those inedible apples made for terrific cider and cider was safer to drink than water, so all was well!
With the recent revival of hard cider in the US, the interest in more apple varieties is on the rise again, and the few dedicated stewards of heirloom apples in the US have been instrumental in identifying, saving and now bringing back many of those old heirloom apples (also called heritage apples). Check out this episode of Wisconsin Foodie to meet Bill Stone of Brightonwoods Orchards in Burlington, Wisconsin and read this piece on the great work John Bunker is doing.
Bill’s Brightonwoods Orchard is also the source of the heirloom apple we use for our Golden Beet & Apple Relish. We blend an heirloom beet variety – the Burpee Golden Beet – with the Wealthy apple, the first apple variety ever grown in Minnesota. It was the Horticulturalist Peter Gideon who managed to grow it in 1868 as a cross between a crab apple and European variety. Before that, all attempts to grow apples in Minnesota had failed, due to the harsh winters there. Johnny Chapman (also known as Johnny Appleseed) had introduced apple trees to large parts of Pennsylvania, Ontario, Ohio and Indiana before his death in 1845, but not Minnesota.
The Wealthy apple was a very prolific tree for many decades, but fell out of favor once the optimized varieties became available: the tree carries fruit the whole summer long, which makes it a great backyard tree for a family, but a hassle for commercial cultivation (think having to pick 5 apples a week instead of three picking per tree for the whole season).
It has a greatly balanced flavor, not to sweet and not to tart, and it complements the sweetness of the beets perfectly. Accentuated with oregano and lemon zest, this relish is great to celebrate fall flavors with some pate, soft rind cheeses or next to a pork chop!
The Wealthy apple – just one of the many varieties forgotten, but not yet lost.