Ruminations on apples: the good, the bad, the useless

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The cover of Apples of Uncommon Character.
The cover of Apples of Uncommon Character.

copyright the Chronicle October 8, 2014

by Joseph Gresser

Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics & Little-Known Wonders, by Rowan Jacobsen. Published by Bloomsbury, New York City, 2014. 311 pages. Hardbound. $35.

At this time of year, even a short walk along any back road will reveal the remains of a long-passed way of life. At intervals, forlorn apple trees, still bearing after years of neglect, will offer their meager , or occasionally abundant, fall harvest.

With the advent of grocery stores and the availability of any fruit or vegetable we might desire regardless of the season, we have moved away from the world where apple trees were a necessary luxury.

Rowan Jacobsen has seen a renewed interest in the apple, and in Apples of Uncommon Character, is making his contribution to the recovery of a tradition that still lives along stonewalls, and roads throughout Vermont and much of America.

The 123 apple varieties of the book’s title are divided into groups, usually based on the use for which each apple is best suited. Those groupings are not only a convenient organizing principle, but reflect the choices a farmer might make in creating an orchard.

In these days of cold storage, it is hard to recall that it once took careful planning to make sure a household would have eating apples on hand throughout the year. Some varieties, as Mr. Jacobsen explains, are barely palatable when first picked, but would have improved greatly over months of storage in barrels in a cool cellar.

Other types of apples would be no one’s choice for a snack, but possess flavors that blossom when pressed and allowed to ferment into hard cider.

Mr. Jacobsen gives a delightful overview of the enormous variety of apples that have proved themselves useful over the centuries. Each apple is given a page or two of text, including a quick summary of its history, best uses, and flavor.

On the opposite page, the apple is shown in one of the gorgeous photographs made by Clare Barboza for the book.

In addition to the pocket description, each apple is discussed in a spritely essay in which Mr. Jacobsen shares his subjective take on the variety. He praises some apples to the skies, while others are shaken out of their trees and left on the ground to rot.

As a guide to varieties, Apples of Uncommon Character follows a path broken by Spencer Ambrose Beach, in his magisterial treatise, The Apples of New York, first published in 1905. Mr. Jacobsen give full honors to his predecessor, who listed around 2,500 varieties and helped establish the largest collection of apple varieties in the world at the New York Agriculture Experiment Station in Geneva, New York.

Mr. Beach’s book is illustrated with some of the earliest color photographs but, as befits a scientific work, his do not set the apples in picturesque surroundings, but show their subjects in both a side view and cross section.

The Apples of New York is intended primarily for the benefit of growers and, perhaps, apple historians. Buried in its pages is a great deal of information that Mr. Jacobsen makes available for apple amateurs.

One of the threads that runs through its essays is a history of the apple in commerce. People’s reliance on homegrown apples lessened in the nineteenth century and, as cold storage techniques improved, large commercial orchards began to take up the slack.

That meant that certain varieties that were attractive and good keepers became enormously successful. One of the earliest of these was the Ben Davis, a variety Mr. Jacobsen refers to as the “World’s Worst Apple.”

This is a tiny part of the dump truck full of snark he unloads on this hapless apple, which even the restrained Mr. Beach sees as “at its best is but of second rate quality.”

The desire for a long-lasting red apple eventually led to the supremacy of the notorious Delicious apple, whose mealy texture turned generations of children away from the fruit.

The Baldwin was one of America’s most popular apples until it was dethroned by the McIntosh.  This formal portrait is from the great two-volume set, The Apples of New York, by S.A. Beach.
The Baldwin was one of America’s most popular apples until it was dethroned by the McIntosh. This formal portrait is from the great two-volume set, The Apples of New York, by S.A. Beach.

Mr. Jacobsen shows how a cold snap caused the fall of the excellent Baldwin’s popularity and the rise of the McIntosh and eventually the Granny Smith, which he dismisses as “plastic.”

A new line of apples is now taking over the marketplace, following in the wake of Honeycrisp. These, Mr. Jacobsen says, have a great burst-in-the-mouth texture, but a disappointing lack of depth in their overwhelmingly sweet flavor.

At the same time orchardists around the country are discovering the old varieties, and a few interesting newcomers, including Keepsake, which is, oddly enough, one of Honeycrisp’s parents. These are leading to more choice on local stands and a resurgence in such old-time pleasures as hard cider.

Mr. Jacobsen’s chapter on cider apples has me ready to send off to Maine for a couple dozen trees, so I can lay down a carboy or two of what my fond hopes imagine will become Northeast Kingdom champagne.

If there is any fondness for the fruit in your soul, Apples of Uncommon Character will have you scouting your property, either for neglected old trees, or a good location for your own orchard.

If you already have apples on hand, Mr. Jacobsen has been kind enough to provide 20 interesting apple recipes, including the one below.

For those interested in making the potpie, he recommends using either Summer Rambo, Golden Delicious, Pink Lady, Tolman Sweet or Jonathan apples in its preparation.

Sausage-apple-cheddar potpie

For the crust:

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar

1 cup milk


For the filling:

1 pound pork sausage, bulk or casings removed

1 medium onion, diced

2 large carrots, peeled and diced

2 celery stalks, diced or 1/2 cup diced celery root

2 large apples, cored and diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons flour

1 cup chicken or beef stock, or sweet cider

1 teaspoon dried crumbled sage

salt and pepper


To make the crust dough, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a food processor and pulse. Add butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the cheese and milk and pulse just until the dough forms and pulls away from the sides of the food processor. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a nine- or ten-inch cast-iron skillet, cook the sausage over medium-low heat until browned, breaking it up as it cooks. Remove the sausage and set aside.

Add the onion, carrots, and celery to the pork fat and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for four minutes.

Add the apples and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened, about four minutes.

Add the flour and stir until incorporated, about one minute.

Add the stock and sage and stir until a hot, bubbling gravy has formed, about two minutes. Return the sausage to the pan and stir. Turn off the heat. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

Drop the biscuit dough over the top in spoon-size balls. It’s okay if it is uneven or if there are small gaps; it will spread out as it cooks.

Bake until the top is puffed and golden, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool ten to 15 minutes before serving.

contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]

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