Honoring our Apple Elders
By Wendy Allen | Illustrations By Bambi Edlund 0
Blasphemy? Not at all. The blasphemy lies in the steady dilution of America’s rich apple heritage over the last 100 years. I was surprised to learn that before the turn of the 20th century, apple diversity was as great as 7,500 known varieties (some sources say up to 15,000!), but now—after the invention of the steel refrigerated boxcar in the 1940s—that number has dropped to a comparatively paltry 2,500 in as little as 60 years.
Even more blasphemous, a mere 11 varieties make up 90 percent of the commercial apple crop today. These top 11 have been specially bred to be travel hardy for a bruiseless crosscountry trip from orchard—most likely in Washington—to store shelf. Red Delicious alone makes up 41 percent of the U.S. apple harvest. Ironically, the tradeoff for that “delicious” red skin and perfectly consistent conical shape is a quite non-delicious mealy texture and flavor that can only be described as bland.
Fortunately, unique and flavorful “antique,” or heirloom, apple cultivars are making a comeback in Wisconsin, thanks in part to the resurgence of farmers markets, home cooking and interest in locally-produced food.
This state has always had a rich apple culture. A century ago, nearly every small farm had its own little family orchard, each with many varieties of apples, some found only in that orchard. Then a first-place winning Gays Mills apple exhibit at the 1905 Wisconsin State Fair prompted the Wisconsin Horticultural Society to plant trial orchards around the state. Many failed, but the orchards that thrived proved there was something special about Wisconsin’s earth.
Milwaukee and Waukesha county apples developed a unique tartness from the area’s alkaline soil, a result of limestone erosion. Cold nights during harvest season bring out a special sweetness in Door and Bayfield county apples. Crawford county orchards benefit doubly from alkaline soil and unique topography—high ridgetops provide excellent sun and protect from frosts that collect in the valleys. Today there are over 7,000 acres of apple orchards in the state, many growing antique apples alongside the commercial varieties to fulfill their specialty markets and help keep the old breeds from going extinct.
Jim Fleming of Fleming Orchard in Crawford County near Gays Mills grows some of these antique apples on his 50-acre, third-generation orchard.
“For commercial we have McIntosh, Cortland, Honeycrisp, Gala, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious,” says Jim, “but we have around 30 antique varieties. Some russets, Wolf River, Paula Red, Jonathan, Jonamac, Jonagold, Braeburn, Winesap.”
Jim sells at the Dane County Farmers Market and says people have begun to recognize the difference in a Gays Mills apple. Commercial varieties were bred more for sweetness and eating out of hand, but the antique apples tend to be tarter and better for cooking. Tart apples have been losing their popularity with mainstream retailers, but interest is increasing at farmers markets.
“The Wolf River was bred specifically for making apple butter,” says Jim. “The Mutsu [Crispin] is great for applesauce, and Winesap is good for making hard cider. The Stark Giant was a horrible tart apple and we basically took out all the trees because it was just such a sour apple. But now at the Madison farmers market people want a sour apple!”