By Matt Landi
Every so often, time and place matter in our collective eating experience. Enjoying apples during the autumn months most certainly fits that category. Sure you can have them fresh all year, pulled out of cold storage or shipped across the Pacific on a container ship, but when it comes to peak eating experience, now is the time to bask in their crisp, fall glory.
A member of the rose family, apples are thought to have originated near present day Kazakhstan, from the lineage of a wild apple still growing in the vicinity today. Their relationship with humans goes back thousands of years. Prior to European settlers giving their seeds a lift to North America, apples were widely cultivated throughout Europe and Asia.
Dozens of varieties are typically available throughout the fall months here in the Pacific Northwest, offering a wide diversity of texture and flavor. Of course, many markets tend to offer just a handful of these options, pared down a great deal from the thousands of actual varieties in existence.
Despite this, there are still many antique or heirloom apples found both in and around Northwest Oregon. This is thanks to visionary growers such as Heirloom Orchards in Hood River, an operation started in 1997 by David and Polly Evans, as well as a few other growers dedicated to keeping both the history and flavor diversity of this fruit alive and well.
Maintaining such diversity can bring about some challenges, the primary one being that many consumers tend to flock to the safety of more common varieties such as Honeycrisp and Fuji. Yet, once the more expansive eating mindset is brought about, heirloom varieties are just as likely to create a similar cult like following.
Here are just a few of the apples you might see, that are typically still around in late October into November:
Esopus Spitzenburg – Discovered in upstate New York in the early 1700’s, Spitzenburg is said to have been the favorite apple of Thomas Jefferson and was found growing at Monticello. Crisp and thick-skinned, it boasts a rich, spicy, aromatic flavor and that classic apple appearance. It’s history here in Oregon, dates back to the early 1900’s, when it was first cultivated in Hood River.
Arkansas Black – This on dates back to the 1870’s, when it was first grown in, surprisingly, Arkansas. This apple shows deep red skin color that turns a more purplish black hue when ripe. It typically has a sweet to slightly tart, aromatic flavor and a crisp, juicy texture. Arkansas Black holds it’s shape well, making it a superb baking apple.
Northern Spy – This apple was first cultivated in the Northeastern United States, sometime around 1800. It was first written about at that time in Bloomfield, NY. It is a thin-skinned, aromatic apple, boasting a mostly tart flavor profile with crunchy flesh that is capable of spreading juice several feet across a room.
Winesap – Discovered in Europe around 200 years ago, Winesap shows an exceptionally deep red skin color that would stand out in a room full of apples. It’s crisp, yellow flesh holds a rich flavor that has been likened to a glass of wine. Hence, the name. In the spring, Winesap trees show noticeably more pink blossoms than white, making for a stunning display.
As our deciduous trees complete their slide into dormancy this November, don’t forget to savor the best of what Northwest Oregon has to offer. Apples at this stage of our seasonal progression have been a part of the human eating experience for thousands of years. Each and every variety that has a story to tell ties us to that past and motivates us to help sustain this fruit going forward.