Heirloom Apples

These uncommon heirloom apple varieties are rich with flavors that intrigue and delight.

By Deborah Madison

Photography by Christa Neu


heirloom apples offer more variety and better flavor than commercial varietiesA few years ago, I saw an ad that showed a grid of apples. Their varied shapes and colors made them intriguing but, according to the ad, problematic. One was too square, another too lumpy, a third too long, and a fourth too dull looking. The way to solve all these "problems" was to turn them into juice, the product being advertised. That way, one would completely bypass their quirky personalities. The goal was to eradicate difference in favor of sameness.

But it's the differences among apples that we should value, especially the old, late-season varieties for which high praise is due. There have been passionate fans and growers of apples for generations. For example, The Apples of New York, published in 1905, lists hundreds of varieties, with full descriptions and illustrations of the fruit documented. One looks at all these age-old heirloom varieties with their wildly differing shapes and colors, stripes and spots and unfamiliar names, and wonders, where did they go? Mostly, they died out, the victims of changes of taste and mass marketing. But some fine apples remain, which is why we must support antique-apple orchardists, who continue to grow and propagate the heirloom apples varieties, and who might even ship them to us to taste or to grow in our own gardens.

This past apple season, I had the good fortune to have a surfeit of exceptionally fine apples. Each time I bit into one, I was reminded what a luscious, complex fruit the apple can be, well worthy of its iconic status in America. Unfamiliar to me (though common to friends on the East Coast) were some of the earlier apples:

'Cortland', 'Empire', and 'Macoun'. Later, other varieties arrived from apple farms around the United States, treasures that included 'Esopus Spitzenburg', 'Ashmead's Kernel', 'Calville Blanc d'Hiver', 'Maiden Blush', 'Cox's Orange Pippin', 'Grimes Golden', and the very small 'Pitmaston Pineapple'.

They were too special to enjoy alone, so I hosted a small apple tasting. We sliced the apples into wedges, thoughtfully nibbled, and then gave our impressions. Later, we enjoyed the remains with cheeses and roasted nuts. You might organize a similar gathering with friends and family, or for your local community garden.