The bumpier and knobbier and older, the better
Peter Montgomery gathers crabapples from old apple trees he finds throughout the area for cider.
Photos by Wendy Carlson
Close your eyes and picture the perfect apple. Chances are the image that comes to mind is the ever-present Red Delicious, the shiny, red, picture-perfect apple you imagine sitting atop a first-grade teacher’s desk. That may soon change as a number of daring orchardists in the Northeast move to preserve, promote, and protect heirloom apples. Some call him the Johnny Appleseed of Litchfield County, but Peter Montgomery of Warren doesn’t even have an apple tree in his backyard—not yet anyway.
On a little more than two acres behind his Warren home, he is planting 190 heirloom apple trees, and he is installing a small, ten-tree orchard at the Eric Sloane Museum property in Kent this spring. The reasoning is that most colonial Litchfield County properties would have included an apple orchard, so the museum should have one, too, according to Montgomery.
One variety will be the Westfield Seek-No-Further apple, a Sloane favorite. Others will vary both in usage (cider, cooking, and dessert) as well as ripening dates. As the trees mature and produce, a replica Colonial cider press may be built at the museum as well, he says. Spurred by the recent farm-to-table movement, Montgomery is one of many orchardists who are tapping into the heirloom-apple–tree market. After reading an essay by Henry David Thoreau on heirlooms, Montgomery learned that at one time orchardists grew thousands of varieties of apples, each propagated for its unique flavor and use. But over time, and for a variety of reasons, the number of old apple varieties has dwindled.
You can still find old trees bearing heirlooms tucked in backyards and fields of vintage homes, says Montgomery, who harvests wild apples for cider. Those apples and others like Gilliflower, Pound Pippin, and Sheepnose come in all shapes and sizes. At first blush, they can look downright ugly. But looks, heirloom aficionados contend, can be deceiving.
Take the Golden Russet. It’s not much of an appealing apple to look at, but Montgomery claims it produces what he calls his “champagne of ciders.” Those bumpy, little crabapples, and many other heirlooms, make superior cider because, in part, of their sky-high sugar content.
Rowan Jacobsen, author of Apples of Uncommon Character, describes Esopus Spitzenberg, which originated in Esopus, New York, in the 1700s, with almost ghoulish candor: “The red coat spotted with fat yellow lenticels like bubbles in hot oil makes me think of the hide of some reptilian beast.” But describing its flavor, he swoons, praising its “extraordinary brandied, burnt-sugar notes, as if it was halfway to being a Tarte Tatin.”
“Most of the apples in my orchard are old apples,” says Linda Allard, who has a private orchard in her backyard in Washington. “We have nine rows of trees, and only three are modern hybrids. I like the older apples better, partly out of sentimentality, and because I think they taste better.”
It’s often unclear what makes an heirloom fruit, except generally that they can be defined as varieties that pre-date the refrigerated boxcar.
“I’m not sure if they are heirloom, but two were my father’s favorites, Winesap and Northern Spy. Both date back to the early 1800s,” Allard says. “We also have Golden Russet, Cortland, and Gravenstein, which was cultivated in Europe in the 1600s and imported to America in the 1800s.”
At some of the area’s long-standing orchards, heirlooms always have been part of the mix. Tyson Averill, a tenth-generation orchardist who grows more than 100 varieties of apples on his family farm in New Preston, says one of the orchard’s oldest heirlooms are crabapples, used mostly for jelly. He reasons that many heirloom varieties weren’t cultivated because they weren’t good eating apples.
And the Red Delicious that consumers once held in high esteem for its taste is not the same apple today, contends Montgomery. “Subsequent natural spontaneous sports, or mutations, yielded a redder and redder fruit, but what it gained in color it lost in freshness and crispness,” he says.
Proving, once again, that beauty is only skin deep.
(Pictured right: Howard Bronson owner Maple Bank Farm)