As nights get colder, leaves flush with color, and our gardens get tucked in for winter, apple picking and fruit exploration kick into high gear here on Super Chilly Farm. It’s hard to believe that we are halfway through the season’s CSA distributions already. This week we are excited to share six new apple varieties–many of which have never been offered in previous seasons. We are also excited about all the upcoming apple events throughout New England. Be sure to check out the ‘upcoming events section’ below for more details about a few apple happenings in Maine over the next two weeks.
This Week’s Picks
Blue Pearmain is an old New England favorite. No one knows where it originated, but ancient trees can still be found in the most rural areas of New England, including central and southern Maine. It is one of those apples with a string of “synonyms” or maybe they’re anagrams: Blue Pearamell, Blue Pearamay, Blue Pomade, Maine Blue Pear, and even, “Painbear Bluemain.” Henry David Thoreau spoke enthusiastically about Blue Pearmain, even though he regularly scorned nearly all other “modern” grafted varieties. Before you bite into a Blue Pearmain, take a moment to look at its incredible blue-purple color and the russet blaze around the stem. If you notice a cloudy haze over the surface of the fruit, no need to worry. That is “bloom” which is the natural wax typical of all apple skins but more visible this variety. Blue Pearmain is tasty eaten out of hand, and it also makes a quick-cooking, flavorful apple sauce. But we highly recommend you use it for baking whole as it makes a superior baked apple. Blue Pearmain will keep until mid-winter. Said to be the parent of the New Hampshire variety, Nodhead, and the Maine variety, Rolfe.
This variety was raised from seed planted in 1849 in Iola, Wisconsin by Jasen Hatch. (Some think that it is a cross between Golden Russet and Alexander.) Before Jasen Hatch realized what he had, he used the tree as a rootstock and grafted it. When the graft later died, the seedling rootstock took over and produced these wonderful apples. Northwestern Greening was introduced about twenty years later by E.W. Daniels in Auroraville, WI. In 1892 a bushel of NW Greening won first prize at the Chicago World’s Fair. This is the first year we have offered this apple in the CSA so we are excited to learn more about it. The flesh is crisp and tart, and we plan to use it for baking both sweet and savory delights. We would love to hear about your adventures with this apple.
Nodhead originated in Hollis, New Hampshire. It is also called Jewett’s Red, Jewett’s Fine Red and sometimes “Not-head”. We’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation for the name; perhaps it refers to the flat (truncate) stem end which is its “nod” head. Or it could be the long branches that “nod” in the breeze. It was the first variety John learned to identify 40 years ago when he moved to Palermo because at that time Nodhead trees were scattered all over town. It is excellent eating right off the tree after a few frosty nights in October, and it remains crisp and tart well into winter. Like Blue Pearmain, its possible parent, it has a heavy, blue bloom. Some years ago, Maine resident Ruth King shared this remembrance of Nodhead, “When I was a little girl (I’m 89 now) a Nodhead tree grew just outside our dining room. I expect it was quite frail as there were so few apples that the five of us kids squabbled as to who got the most!”
Smokehouse is a seedling of the ancient American variety, Vandevere. Smokehouse originated in Lampeter Township, PA about 1800 adjacent to William Gibbons’ smokehouse. Although the fruit was named for the smokehouse, in a happy twist of fate the fruit lives up to its name as it looks smoky, colored with a muted blend of yellows, greens and a reddish-brown blush. This all-purpose apple is still quite popular, both in home and commercial orchards, in Pennsylvania and occasionally in central Maine. Smokehouse is most admired as a culinary variety, particularly for pies. In his The Fruits and Fruit trees of America (1845), A.J. Downing calls it, “rather rich subacid.” We like its subtle flavor right off the tree. For five-year-old Bennett, this apple is tops!
This apple is an old variety we pick each year at the Apple Farm in Fairfield. No one seems to know its origin or even it’s real name. The trees were there in the orchard when Steve and Marilyn Meyerhans purchased the farm 40 years ago. We’re on a full court press to identify the variety. We have some hunches but nothing definite yet. The apple has practically no acidity to it, so it may taste strange if you take a bite right off the tree or out of the bag. Daniel is a fan, however, so give it a taste. Use it for cooking and add it to your cider.
An all purpose variety that was first exhibited by George Howland of New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1843 at the Mass Horticultural Society. Evidently it was Howland who found the original seedling on his farm in Cayuga County, New York and then brought it with him to Massachusetts. Old trees are rare, but John came across a beautiful 10-12 tree orchard of Twenty Ounce some years ago in Aroostook County. This is another variety with many synonyms. Two favorites are “Eighteen Ounce Apple” (perhaps this one was growing on poor soil) and “Blessing of Vermont.” We have been eating this apple every way we can think of; we like it fresh, in pies and sauce, in salads and especially on cheddar and apple pizza.
by John Bunker
When July turns into August and the summer apples begin to ripen and drop, Fruit Exploring Season begins on Super Chilly Farm. It’s one of those other Maine seasons – like Mud Season, though, unlike Mud Season, we always hope that Fruit Exploring Season will be a long one. In a good year, it might last from early August until nearly Thanksgiving. In 2011 it was still in full swing in December when I went to England with a group of students from College of the Atlantic and we explored the cider orchards of Somerset and surrounding counties. Highly recommended.
Mostly I fruit explore here in Maine, hunting for the oldest apple (and pear) trees throughout the state. I especially love the ancient, hollow, broken down hulks. Once I’m on site, my first task is to determine if the specimen in question is a seedling or a grafted tree. I’m looking for old grafted trees. (Seedlings do not come true-to-type and therefore have no name. If you plant a McIntosh seed, you will never get a McIntosh tree. You get something new and unique with every seed.)
Once I’ve located an old cultivated grafted tree, I take a few fruit if it’s there (and if the owners are agreeable). Then, process of identification begins. I use old fruit books, local histories, newspaper clippings, letters, stories from the family and so forth –it’s like being Sherlock Holmes in an orchard. Sometimes it takes years to find an old variety I’m looking for or to identify a fruit I’ve found that no one remembers the name. I return to the tree in the winter, when the tree is dormant, and take a few cuttings (called scions). With these I graft a few trees and at least one branch on one of our trees here in our small preservation orchard in Palermo. If the old ancient specimen dies, we’ve got new ones started. The variety is protected. We’ve saved the apple for now.
Every year we find a few more. Some we identify right away, while others sit in apple limbo waiting to be named some time in the future. We find them on old farms, in the woods by empty cellar holes, even in parking lots or on lawns where long ago a farmer’s orchard once stood.
These old varieties are an important part of our heritage. They are a gift to us from the past by anonymous ancestors. These apples represent a hugely diverse gene pool. (Most of the modern varieties are just re-juggled crosses of a small handful of sweet crispy varieties.) The old varieties – as you know – come in a wide range of flavors, sizes, colors and seasons. Many are disease resistant. They are good for a multitude of uses. Whether it’s a pie or sauce or cider or molasses or brownies or even pizza, nothing beats the right apple for the right dish. It’s like using the right tool for the right job.
Currently we’re planning a large preservation orchard in Unity at MOFGA. The orchard will include around 500 varieties and will be entirely composed of the classic old apples traditionally grown in Maine. The grafting wood and the fruit itself will then be available to everyone for generations to come.
How can you help? Well, be on the lookout for old trees. Really old trees, like the ones pictured here. And when you find one, call us or send us an email and I’ll come visit it with you and we’ll see about identifying it and saving it for future Mainers. And if you’d like to get involved in MOFGA’s new heritage orchard, or you’d like to make a contribution, please let us know! After all, if we hope to have a local agriculture in the future, we can learn a great deal from those who did it right here in Maine for generations.
Read more about MOFGA’s Heritage Orchard!
Apple History: Grafting Good Fruit
by Jill Piekut
Last time, we learned that “apples don’t come true from seed.” If a variety can’t be reproduced from seed, how does it continue to grow over the course of centuries? Apples (and other “pomaceous” fruits, as well as grapes and roses) must be reproduced by grafting, or, in short, splicing a shoot or bud of a desired apple variety onto an existing tree or seedling rootstock.
More specifically, the process entails taking a one year old twig (called a scion) or a bud from a healthy tree, and attaching it to the stem and roots of another tree (called the rootstock). Care must be taken to line up the cambium layers, which connect the leaves and fruit to the roots. If the graft takes, everything growing above the union will be genetically identical to scion’s parent tree, eventually producing apples of the desired variety.
While grafting has been practiced for centuries throughout the world, grafting in America didn’t become widespread until around the beginning of the nineteenth century. As Maine’s population increased in the 1800s, seedling fruit that had been planted by the colonists was replaced by “choice fruit” brought “from away” and sold in nurseries. During this period, itinerant grafters traveled from town to town carrying the latest scion wood and offering their skills, and nurserymen set up shop, selling young trees to local farmers. With this shift, new orchards could be planned with specific varieties in mind.
Broadly speaking, grafting allows new, exciting varieties to spread throughout communities, from state to state, and across oceans. While old Maine apples like Kavanagh and Charette never – until recently – left their area of origin, others such as Winthrop Greening and Black Oxford became well-known throughout the state. As settlers from Massachusetts flowed into the District of Maine, they brought with them scionwood from Massachusetts apples like Tolman Sweet and Roxbury Russet, while, at about the same time, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society imported Alexander, Red Astrachan, and other Russian apples for use in the northern reaches of New England.
As Maine’s character changed from frontier territory to independent state, homesteads spread from coast and riverside to the interior pine forest. Most homesteads in the nineteenth century included at least a few fruit trees, and many had larger orchards for market. Small homestead orchards of two to ten trees provided apples for a range of uses: early sauce apples, sweet apples for making molasses, apples for eating fresh, apples for pie, apples for drying, late apples for storage–each tree could provide a different apple for a different purpose. Even large market orchards had a few trees set apart for “home use.” And at that time, large orchards grew a much wider range of varieties than they do today, both for local markets and for more distant trade with the southern states and England.
During the 19th century and into the 20th, Maine enjoyed a hardy economy based on the export of goods: lumber, canned corn and lobster, and apples. As the apple trade grew at the end of the century, large orchards pared down the varieties they grew, selecting fruit that kept well and and looked good, at the expense of the delicate and interesting flavors exhibited in the old home apples.
Next time, we’ll begin to understand what caused the decline of the apple trade and the loss of so many fine varieties.
Meet the Apprentices
This week, Super Chilly Farm apprentices, Jill and Abbey, took a moment to write about each other…
In Jill’s words: Abbey Verrier is a student at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Abbey hopes to start her own orchard someday, and is eager to learn all aspects of apple culture. Abbey met John on a trip to England in the winter of 2011, where, with a group of COA students, they learned about fruit culture and hard cider making. This fall, she left Mount Desert Island to study with John and Cammy at Super Chilly Farm. Abbey can often be seen reading the pomological classic The New England Fruit Book on the porch with a cup of tea, petting the two collie puppies who like to follow her around. Her favorite activity is riding in the back of the pickup truck, and she thinks apple picking is much more fun than waitressing in Bar Harbor. Abbey is also interested in poetry and writing, and loves running, swimming in the ocean, and living in Maine.
In Abbey’s words: I first met Jill Piekut in a poetry class at College of the Atlantic. Then, I was struck by the soft yet captivating manner in which she read aloud. We next crossed paths on a class trip to England where we toured orchards and cideries throughout the country. As a budding expert in the history of pomology, she made an excellent course TA (teacher’s assistant). Jill is particularly interested in Maine’s agricultural history. For her senior project at COA, she created a pomona of apple varieties originating in Maine. When complete, the book will not only function as an identification tool for apple enthusiasts but will also profile the history of each apple. Having graduated from College of the Atlantic in June, Jill is here on Super Chilly Farm this Fall to continue her research. Thus far, Jill has most enjoyed working in the kitchen with Cammy (she makes an excellent apple pandowdy) and repairing apple boxes in the shop. Her favorite apple this season is the Charette. Most evenings, she can be found reading 19th century novels by the woodstove. Jill also enjoys making found art sculpture and is interested in architectural renovation. She’s a great poet and loves to get dressed up.
There are some great apple events coming up soon. Hope to see you there!
Fedco Fall Bulb and Tree Sale!
John will have a display and do apple identifications.
For more information: http://www.fedcoseeds.com/
Apple and Cheese Tasting at Eat More Cheese in Belfast!
Sample apple and cheese pairings with us, and learn more about our CSA.
Hosted by Eat More Cheese, 33C Main Street, Belfast, ME
MOFGA’s Great Maine Apple Day!
Displays, workshops, lots of apples to taste. John will be doing apple identifications.
For more information: http://mofga.org/Default.aspx?tabid=294
From the Palermo Test Kitchen
In keeping with this season’s old-fashioned apple dessert theme, Jill took on the Brown Betty for this week. Buttery and filling, it’s the perfect compliment to cozy evening by the fire.
When we featured Pandowdy as our last dessert, we were happy to receive alternative recipes from our readers. If you have experience with Brown Betties, please don’t hesitate to send along your favorite recipe. In our searching for variations on the Brown Betty, we found a cookbook from 1877 calls for cracker crumbs and applesauce! We’d love your help comparing single-layer and multi-layer varieties and crumb selections.
Rustic Apple Brown Betty
Amy Traverso’s recent publication, The Apple Lover’s Cookbook (2010), contains both new recipes invented by the author and old American recipes like this Rustic Brown Betty. This recipe makes a dessert not unlike a crisp or cobbler, with fruit on the bottom and a crumbly crust on top. The Brown Betty is more economical and modest than her cousins: in this case, the crust is made from stale breadcrumbs – a delicious way to use up leftovers. Many other Brown Betty recipes direct cooks to make multiple layers of apples, breadcrumbs, and butter slices in a deep dish. Assembled this way, the Brown Betty must cook for about 40 minutes. Traverso’s recipe cuts the cooking time in half, adding another layer of efficiency to this classic American dessert.
Traverso suggests using firm-tart apples like Arkansas Black, Esopus Spitzenburg, or Northern Spy. We used Northwestern Greening. Note that a standard bread loaf weighs about a pound, so 1/3 of a loaf of stale bread should be enough. Our breadcrumbs were whole wheat.
We served our Brown Betty with ice cream from John’s in Liberty. Both apple and ginger ice cream were delicious compliments. The whole wheat bread crumbs and minimally-sweet flavor of this dish left us wondering if this Brown Betty would do well at the breakfast table served with yogurt and a fine cup of coffee. Try it for yourself!
1/3 pound (151 g) crusty white (not sourdough) bread, preferably a bit stale
1/3 cup (50 g) chopped walnuts
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick; 57g) salted butter
5 large firm-tart apples (about 2 1/2 pounds total), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1/3 cup (80 ml) maple syrup
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and set a rack to the middle position. Break the bread into large chunks. In a food processor, pulse the bread until it forms fine, fluffy crumbs. Add the walnuts and pulse about four more times, until the nuts are broken into small pieces.
2. Melt the butter over medium heat in a skillet. Add the bread and nuts. Cook, stirring often, until the bread looks golden brown and toasted, 6 to 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the crumb mixture from the skillet. Transfer to a bowl, and set aside.
3. Add the apples, maple syrup, and 3/4 cup water to the skillet, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook until some water is evaporated and the apples are just becoming tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Sprinkle the crumb mixture over the apples and bake until the apples are fully cooked and the sauce is bubbling, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 20 minutes. Serve warm in the skillet.
As night sets in earlier and earlier and we find ourselves snuggled around the wood stove in the evening, our dinner cravings begin to drift toward comfort foods. Could we combine two of our favorites, applesauce and mac & cheese, we wondered? Phoebe found inspiration in Apples: A Country Garden Cookbook by Christopher Idone, and created a dish that surprised our taste buds, warmed our bellies, and left us competing for the leftovers the next day.
Smoky Mac & Cheese with Sautéed Apples
5 firm apples (Twenty Ounce, Smokehouse, NW Greening, Sweet Red)
1 tsp lemon zest
1TBS (or less) sugar or honey
2 TBS butter
Peel, core and slice the apples. Toss them with the lemon zest and honey or sugar. Melt the butter in a skillet, and sautée the apple slices till lightly carmelized and soft but not mushy. Set aside, and keep warm.
4 medium leeks
1 TBS olive oil
3/4 lb macaroni, penne or other scoop-shaped pasta
3 TBS butter
8 oz. smoked Swiss cheese, grated
Salt and pepper to taste
Clean, wash, and chop the leeks. Sauté in the olive oil till soft. While these are cooking, boil water and cook pasta according to the directions on the package. When the pasta is al dente, drain. Toss with butter, cheese, sautéed leeks, salt and pepper. Garnish with the chopped chives.
Serve the mac and cheese with the sautéed apples on the side. Bite in and feel the love.
With that, we bring this newsletter to a close. To all of you who have written to us with recipes, tree sightings, and apple anecdotes, thanks! Please keep your thoughts on all things apples coming our way — we love to hear from you! The next distribution happens the week of October 22.
Until next time, enjoy those apples!
- The OOAL Crew