Thursday, July 1, 2010

Apples, and Cider Apples

Neck and neck with brewing beer at home is the resurgence of making cider. Whether sweet, hard, blended, or sparkling, trend watchers say cider, once the preferred beverage of early America, could very well become the drink of the future. (Hard cider is the fastest growing segment of the beverage industry.)

More than I ever wanted to know about apples... that's what the internet offers. What's missing is information on the majority of the 'missing apples', those great old apple varieties we have let go by the wayside. There once were 15,000 -16,000 named, grown and eaten varieties in North America, and today fewer than 20% (+/-3,000 varieties) remain; some sources say not more than 1,000.

The big and beautiful Red Delicious is the stereotypical but tasteless apple that has come to dominate the supermarket shelf, comprising more than 40 percent of all apples sold in big box chain stores. With today’s mass marketing, only a handful of large nurseries control what gets planted in large commercial orchards. And they want 'pretty', not taste.

Where variety really matters, though, is in finding cider apples. GOOD cider apples. Not all apples are suitable for making cider, whether just pressed apples for fresh cider, or fermented hard cider. Take a look at apples broken down by their best use... There are apples for cooking (think pies!), apples for eating, and cider apples. In 2 of those categories, I can only show a few named varieties still in use because we have lost SO many, notably in the cider apples, but also in the baking apples.

For a baking apple, you want a flavorful yet firm apple, because heat breaks down an apple's structure. Gala, Braeburn, Northern Spy, Rome and Granny Smith can hold their shape (and taste) in baking pies and cobblers. So will Gravenstein, Pippens, King, Snow and Wealthy. The apple I prefer for superb pies is King Luscious (and I don't know if it is related to the King apple). I only know of one place that still grows a few, although they were almost lost before the old orchard was purchased by someone with vision; it's on the Blue Ridge Parkway about 100 miles from here.

For applesauce you'll want a softer variety like McIntosh, maybe mixed with a few Red Delicious. Early apples good for applesauce also include Lodi, Melba and Transparent. The harder Granny Smith apples will give you a chunkier sauce.

Many of the mid-season and early fall apples do not keep well, and are used for juice. Overripe, soft and/or pulpy apples make for poorly flavored juice. Under-ripe apples make a starchy juice. You can check for ripeness by cutting one apple: if the seeds are still mostly or even somewhat white, they are under-ripe. As the apple matures, the seeds turn light brown. Late varieties have darker seeds when fully mature.

Cider traditionally was made from a mix of three distinct apple tastes, in equal volume: sweet, bittersweet, and sharp, with each varying in the amounts of tannins and acidity. However, if you were making a single variety apple cider, the bittersweets are best. Today, you might only find and mix sweeter apples like Baldwin or Delicious with tart apples like Jonagold or Winesap.

Some older varieties of bittersweet apples are still around, if you can find them, but fewer bittersweet apples still exist compared to Sharp/Bittersharp, and even more Sweet varieties still exist. Probably fewer bittersweets because cider fell out of favor, and cider apples are not good eating apples. These variety lists below come from the UK site, The Real Cider and Perry Page, although many of these varieties were brought into the US in the 1800's. (Perry is hard pear cider.)

Bittersweet apples: Brown Snout, Improved Dove, Chisel Jersey, Knotted Kernel, Somerset Red, Fillbarrel, Tramlett’s Bitter, Harry Master’s Jersey, Yarlington Mill, Dabinette and Kingston Black. Raintree in the US Pacific Northwest carries the last two. They also carry Foxwhelp and Tompkins King. Fedco (which is a highly-regarded co-op) in Maine carries several cider apples, but they are usually sold out by Feb. and the website doesn't list the varieties when none are available. You may, however, download the 2010 fruit tree catalog on this page. It lists apples by taste, and use.

For some Sharp and Bittersharp varieties, click here. For some Sweet Apple varieties, click here.

So, if you get really interested in making good, old fashioned cider (which you can freeze if you don't want to make hard cider), you can plant some heirloom varieties. Slow Food USA, via the Ark of Taste, is trying to save and renew interest in heritage foods of all kinds. This year, their RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) Alliance is focusing on heritage apples by holding workshops on cutting, grafting, documenting tree histories, and distributing scion wood of the most flavorful historic fruit varieties. They recently held a workshop in Madison, WI with 20 heirloom apple experts from across the nation to discuss status, and efforts to conserve and promote heirloom apples, and the Madison, WI group has started planting apples in earnest.

You can download the Forgotten Fruits Manual and Manifesto - Apples here.

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