Michael Pollan’s breakout book (and PBS special) Botany of Desire starts with the saga of the apple. He calls the apple as important as the axe and the plow to the pioneers.
They were not valued as a sweet, crunchy snack but as liquid refreshment. Apples were the easiest source of alcohol available in the new world. Pollan calls Johnny Appleseed Dionysus’s American son.
John Chapman carried canoe-fulls of apple seed into the wilderness, leaving a trail of tree nurseries along the paths he expected settlers to follow. He sold the seedlings to settlers when they arrived, and they were grateful to have a jump-start on the orchard that was integral to every farm.
Exactly what kind of apples they were starting in their orchards, neither they nor Johnny knew because every apple seed is a new combination of apple personality traits. To get apples that are the same, you must graft a twig from your preferred tree onto an existing tree.
Grafting was already established, but Chapman chose to take his chances with seeds, and in the process spread a vast variety of apples into the New World. According to Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times this morning, there were more than 6,500 distinct varieties of apples listed in the U.S. in 1905. That explosion of apple types was eventually corralled and controlled, and under the heavy hand of agribusiness reduced to the few standards that store, ship and sell well. Artificial apple-flavor in a crispy package.
Fortunately antique apples are gaining supporters. They are riding the crest of the heirloom fruit and vegetable boom, and we’re lucky they are. The more varieties of apples we love and grow, the better chance apples have of surviving the insects and diseases that are constantly evolving to consume them. The more apples in our pocket, the better to find the ones that can adapt to climate change. And finally, the more amazing flavors we have to enjoy.
This Wednesday in the early dark, I hurried to the lobby of the grand old Orpheum Theater to attend a regular tasting organized by Ferment, an informal happy hour that brings together Madison’s farmers, cooks, connoisseurs and curious. This week the subject was apples. There was not a Red Delicious in sight. Instead the tables were laden with wonders like Black Gilliflower with its pear-like flavor and conical shape discovered in Connecticut in the late 1700’s, and Calville Blanc d’Hiver, a classic dessert apple of France and favorite of Thomas Jefferson.
Two area antique apple growers shared their harvest.
Jim Lindemann apples from this Gardens of Goodness orchard. Jim’s 120 trees overlook Lake Wabesa, and Jim can see Wisconsin’s gleaming capitol dome in the distance.
For 20 years Jim has been planting and tending his orchard with the plan to follow in the pioneer’s footsteps and produce hard cider. That’s why he is drawn to the heirloom varieties that can combine to make a cider to suit the modern American palette. Because Americans have a notorious sweet tooth, some of his apples register high on the sweet-o-meter.
“Most of my apples are not designed for desert,” he told me as I munched on paper-thin slices of his Gravenstein. This variety originated in Italy in the 1600s and came to the U.S. via a German ship in 1790. I’m so glad it did.
Lindeman went on to explain that to make good cider you need sugar for fermentation, acid for bite and tannin for mouth feel. “Most apples out there today can do sugar o.k., but they are insipid in terms of acid and tannin. A very small percentage make good cider. It’s difficult to test but easy to taste.”
“If someone bites into one of my apples and says ‘That’s bitter,’ we say, ‘Thank you!’”
The second pomologist supplying the tasting was Ken Weston. He operates Weston’s Antique Apples outside New Berlin, Wisconsin.
At 80, Weston cares for trees he keeps collecting as well as many that were planted when he was a little boy. “I helped my grandparents and my mother and father plant them together with workers from the CCC camp,” he told me. “We grew up with these creatures. Of course they weren’t so antique then.”
Though Weston sells his apples from a stand on his farm and at the Dane County Farmer’s Market in Madison, he calls it more of an art form than a commercial orchard. “I see them as solid flowers. This year we had perfect weather for apples. They enjoyed the cool, wet weather, and we got colors I’ve never seen before.”
“We have colors and shapes that dazzle the mind,” he continued. “One looks like a doughnut. It has an effervescence like sparkling wine and tastes like cashews and honey. One looks like a pomegranate.”
Weston doesn’t question global warming. He is seeing it in his orchard.
“We are growing tropical varieties now that didn’t used to grow here,” he said. “I have 8-year-old Pink Ladies from New Zealand. It used to be you couldn’t grow them north of the Illinois border, but we are growing them easily now.”
“We’ve got a Turkish variety, Kandil sinap, that comes from the Mediterranean where it’s hot. It’s adjusting to our climate. It’s absolutely gorgeous. They look like peppers. The tree has leaves like olive leaves, and it grows straight up like a poplar. It is so easy to digest. At 80, some apples give my digestive system trouble, but I can eat these all day. It’s refreshing — like a drink of cold, mountain water.”
Growing antique apples is a challenge, Weston says. “One is so delicate, you have to pick it with gloves. Another takes 20 years to get a peck. And their branches break. These are fussy old things. You have to be out there all the time.”
Weston wants see these fussy old things with their dazzling variety and eye-popping beauty and encyclopedia of flavors cover the countryside like they used to. He offers classes to spread the word. Check his website to get details on a pruning class at the end of March, and classes in integrated pest management and grafting in April.
I’ll be making at least one trek to New Berlin next spring.
I remember fondly the orchard on my own grandparents’ 80-acre farm in central Illinois. I have carefully selected the spot on our 44 acres which seems best suited to start a brand new antique orchard.