Renewing America’s Food Traditions, one apple at a time
by Gary Nabhan
Travel through the many American foodsheds, and you’ll be surprised by just how many communities are experiencing a strong resurgence of culinary interest in heirloom apples. What’s most striking is how that interest has taken root in different places in distinctly innovative ways. The most cherished heirloom apple in your hometown may be entirely different than mine, and your apples may be grown, harvested and distributed by means very different than those in my neck of the woods.
This is all good news, for two decades ago, it seemed as though most heirloom apple varieties had already witnessed their heyday, and their production was in steep decline. Just a dozen apple varieties had come to dominate ninety percent of the grocery sales in the U.S., while some 3,000 other varieties languished in small nurseries and orchards without much market demand. But within the last few years, all of that has begun to change, so much so that the Renewing America’s Food Traditions Alliance has declared 2010 to be the Year of the Heirloom Apple. Thousands of farmers markets, CSAs and restaurants now seasonally feature heirloom apples, enabling hundreds of varieties to return to your table—flavors that you may not have tasted for years.
We have a few great orchard-keepers to thank for being the catalysts of this resurgence, and among them are Tom Burford, Leigh Calhoun, Tom Brown and John Bunker. They have rediscovered many varieties once thought to have gone extinct, ones with names like Arkansas Sweet, Cherryville Black, Harrison, Starkey and Sweet Dixon. They have put these unique varieties in the hands of expert orchard-keepers such as the Charlotte and Chuck Shelton of Vintage Virginia Vintage Apples, Gene and Betty Wild of Wild’s Apple Farm in Indiana, who grow eight hundred varieties, or Nick Botner, who now grows some 3,000 varieties in his Yoncalla, Oregon orchard.
But apple explorers and specialty growers are not the only innovators. Once cider-makers realized that some unique flavors were once again available, they began to blend historically-renown varieties such as Harrison and Graniwinkle into hard ciders that have been stealing the show at many wine and cider festivals.
Several chefs are also experimenting with novel uses for heirloom apples, going beyond the usual range of pies and butters. At Tami Lax’s Harvest Restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, Chef Derek Rowe has prepared sumptuous feasts for which a different heirloom apple is featured in every course.
Some growers like Bill Moretz now offer their many apple varieties through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) efforts that have introduced consumers to myriads of apple shapes, colors, flavors and textures they may have never imagined. But perhaps the most important vehicle for returning heirloom apple diversity to our kitchen tables has been the farmers’ market. Five thousand markets have popped up in America. The website www.localharvest.org can identify markets near you that feature place-based heirlooms on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste—treasures generally neglected by mainstream commerce.
I recently asked Ron Joyner of Big Horse Creek Farm whether it is hard for him and his wife Suzanne to market the 300 antique and heirloom apples that they grow in their North Carolina orchard. Ron’s response was reassuring, for it suggested that a diversity of fruits can indeed be successfully marketed: “We find it is not particularly difficult to see a wide variety of apples at our farmers’ market. During a good growing season we will typically have anywhere from ten to twenty varieties available for sale on any given fall day. We take great care in our presentation, displaying our apples prominently in large, open plastic bins. Our goal is to first catch the customer’s eye by having a colorful display. Once we get them to stop, gaze and talk, we can usually get them to buy. We also offer fresh samples for tasting. This will usually be the clincher…”
Remember that in the North, chefs tend to cook a tart but eat a sweet apple, while in the South it is vice-versa. And have some fun with the apples you choose not to eat fresh—bake them in pies or use to sweeten butter. Press their juices, ferment and drink them for the Year of the Heirloom Apple!