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  • From: Betty Mayfield <>
  • To: North American Fruit Explorers <>
  • Subject: [NAFEX] Heirloom apples promoted
  • Date: Sat, 30 Oct 2010 14:51:35 -0700

To the list,

This recent story from the Wall Street Journal tells of the revival of heirloom apple varieties.

Betty Mayfield
northwest Oregon
Wall Street Journal, Oct. 27, 2010

Before the Mac, Vintage Apples
Farmers and Stores Push Thousands of Heirloom Varieties, Rediscovering the Duchess of Oldenburg


Roxbury Russet has a nutty flavor. Strawberry Chenango smells like roses. Cornish Gilliflower is reminiscent of clove.

Farmers and chefs treat them like fine wine, but these are apples—"heritage" or "heirloom" varieties that were common on American tables as far back as colonial times but today are rarely tasted. Now, a number of orchards and apple historians are growing these old varieties again and promoting them to restaurants, distributors and grocers. The apples are showing up in ciders and next to pork roasts.

"Heirloom" is a potent food-marketing buzzword, helping once-forgotten plant varieties and even animal breeds command premium prices. Heirloom apples were regionally popular for generations but have ceased to be cultivated commercially. From the 1950s on, mass-production farming favored reliable apples that could stand up to shipping, and stores have been dominated by apples from fewer than a dozen familiar types, including McIntosh, Red Delicious, Fuji and Granny Smith.

The heirlooms, in contrast, with freckles, stripes and other visual peculiarities, buck the modern idea of what an apple looks like. Often priced in the $3.99-a-pound range, they can cost up to twice as much as common apple varieties. They are coming back strong nonetheless, as the increasing numbers of people who cook and eat at home seek out novel ingredients.

Unusual appearance can be a problem at some more-commercial venues. "The heirloom apples look different. The russeting, how they're multicolor—those are normally no-nos and cause for rejection in other varieties," says Michael Rozyne, co-director of the Canton, Mass., nonprofit Red Tomato, which works to get local farm produce into mainstream supermarkets. "We can't sell them very well unless we create the romance and the story and the history that goes with it," he adds.

Mainstay varieties make up as much as 90% of apples sold in grocery stores, says Gary Nabhan, professor at the University of Arizona who founded Renewing America's Food Traditions, an organization of nonprofits that aims to restore endangered crop species. This year, focusing on apples, the group has listed more than 600 forgotten and seldom-seen types that it wants to bring back, whether through promotional events or free distribution of grafting material.

Prof. Nabhan, who studies farming and culture, says 15,000 different apples were once grown and eaten in the U.S. Today, he says just one-fifth that number are available from nurseries and other sources, and most are at risk of being lost to commerce or disappearing altogether.

Apple orchards were once fixtures of American communities, typically growing varieties that were well-adapted to local conditions. With the consolidation of farming and the advent of better ways to ship, many small orchards disappeared in the decades after World War II. Slow Food USA's catalog of 200 endangered foods, "The U.S. Ark of Taste," lists seven endangered heirloom apple varieties, including Granite Beauty and the Newtown Pippin.

Today, the U.S. apple-industry is concentrated mainly in Washington and New York states. Modern varieties are bred to be tough travelers, easily packed and good-looking on store shelves. The upshot, some experts say, is that the modern apple has sacrificed a lot of flavor. In contrast, heirloom apples—once popular for pressing into cider, or for their ability to hold up in baking and cooking—have a range of flavors, from tart to sweet to spicy and aromatic.

At a recent vintage-apple tasting organized by Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's historic estate in Charlottesville, Va., 59 people sampled and rated several hard-to-find varieties. Jenny Heap, an Arlington, Va., marketing manager, noted that the Yellow Bellflower has "notes of cilantro." Andrea Reusing , chef and owner of the Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., uses some of these rare apples, sourced from a nearby orchard, because the unusual flavors are fun to pair with other foods. Earlier this month, her menu featured a dish of roast pork and the English Golden Harvey apple, a small fruit Ms. Reusing says has a "spicy, plummy, cardamom" taste.

Lost Nation Orchard, in Groveton, N.H., is planted with 80 types of apples, many of them heirlooms; it sells them on weekends in fall. Among the varieties owner Michael Phillips grows is the Tolman Sweet, an old baking apple that he says reminds him of banana, and Pink Pearl, an inside-out apple (the skin is yellow and the flesh is pink).

People can buy a $50 orchard share for the season, including three pecks (about 30 pounds) of any apple he grows and a bonus half-peck of the Duchess of Oldenburg, a Russian apple that came to the U.S. in the 19th century. It's "an incredible summer apple," known for its excellence in pies, Mr. Phillips says.

Kings Super Markets Inc., a specialty grocery chain in New Jersey, has begun carrying heirloom apples. They've been off to a slow start, says Paul Kneeland, vice president of produce. Regular apples "might sell at a rate of three to one" compared with the heirlooms, he says, which cost about twice as much per pound. Chatham Marketplace, a food co-op in Pittsboro, N.C., posts short histories for some of its vintage varieties, provided by the grower, Raven Rocks Orchard of Blowing Rock, N.C. "With every type, they send a sign that says where it originated, what part of the area it was grown in, around when it was first talked about," says produce manager David Dellea.

  • [NAFEX] Heirloom apples promoted, Betty Mayfield, 10/30/2010

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