I wonder if I would love apples as much if I had grown up somewhere other than New England. For instance, if my family had remained in eastern Kentucky where I was born—more tomato than apple country. But I grew up just outside of Boston and they were a staple of my diet. I used to eat literally everything but the seeds, core and all—at least for those fleeting early fall months when the apple exhibits its most, best, intense, appleness.
Our food system allows us to access most foods at most times of the year: strawberries in February, oranges in May, spring lamb all year round. All natural foods are best when freshest, and out of season produce can be truly dismal by the time it travels from its native clime to your table. But no other food makes the importance of seasonality so brazenly clear to me as apples.
I’ve rarely met the tree-ripe, just-picked apple I didn’t love. The satisfying bite, the rush of juice, the almost cleansing acidity. If you live in an apple mecca—Boston counts—then during the season you can choose from dozens of varietals to exactly match your preference. I prefer apples with a very crisp bite, firm fine-grained flesh, and a flavor profile that’s at least as tart as it is sweet. Northern Spy, Macoun, Jonamac, Empire, Cortland are reliable picks.
This year I found a new heirloom apple favorite, the fantastically named Ashmead’s Kernal. Similar in appearance to the oldest cultivated apple, the tamer Roxbury Russet, it has a mottled matte green skin (almost like an Asian pear), bright white dense flesh with a fabulous snap, and an intoxicatingly lively palate. It can be intensely tart. If I ever have a batch long enough that their bite softens, making them less ideal for eating out of hand, I would try them in a tarte tatin where that tartness could play against a sweet rich buttery pastry.
At dinner the other night, friends prepared an heirloom apple tasting as our first course. It was a brilliant idea. I laughed at the coincidence when I saw the plate—we shop at the same farmer’s market and they had picked out exactly the same varietals as I had done, from a wide array of choices, that morning.
They served the apples with a Pecorino-like local cheese, nuts and seeds they had roasted with a spiced glaze, and homemade rye crackers. The accompaniments provided a nice range of contrasts—earthy, spicy, crunchy, unctuous, sweet—against which we could judge the apples’ qualities. Ashmead’s Kernal turned out to be the overall favorite.
Esopus Spitzenberg—really—had an almost airy bite and citrus-scented, light flesh. A reputed favorite of Thomas Jefferson, it tied for second with the incongruously named Blue Pearmain, which I can only describe as a fairy tale apple: cherry-red skin, snow-white flesh. It was not my favorite because its bite was more firm than crisp and its acidity was not quite pronounced enough to offset its distinctly floral sweetness. We all agreed it would make a killer cider or applesauce; its scent was positively heady. In last place was the aforementioned Roxbury Russet. Though this cultivar plays an important role in American apple history and is local to Boston to boot, its overall flavor profile was muted in comparison to the others and its bite, as well as its skin, more closely resembled an Asian pear than its peers.
It’s about 10 in the morning right now and I’ve already had my first apple of the day (I think it was a Black Gilliflower, crisp sweet firm). An Ashmead’s Kernal is next, and then tomorrow morning, back to the farmer’s market for another round of treasure hunting.