Heirloom Apples

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

By Deborah Madison

Photography by Christa Neu


old fashioned Heirloom apples are tastier than conventional varietes'Cox's Orange Pippin', a 19th-century English apple, is another classic dessert apple best enjoyed a few weeks after picking. Handsome with yellowish-orange skin and an underlying blush, it has fine-grained and firm flesh, full of juice and richly flavored. "Floral" was a descriptor the tasters used, but the scent had spicy and nutty tones—almost, but not quite, like a quince. 'Cox's Orange Pippin' also ripens late and keeps through the end of the year.

While 'Newtown Pippin' was Washington and Jefferson's favorite apple, 'Esopus Spitzenburg' also grew in Jefferson's garden. Originally a New York apple with deep red-orange fruit, 'Esopus Spitzenburg' might be recommended on looks alone. The flesh is aromatic, crisp, more yellow than white, and firm; tastes a bit tart; and ripens about a month before the other apples we tasted. It's floral, and layers of flavor made it extremely well liked, certainly more so than 'Grimes Golden', which came off as delicate (or insipid) and not as great as we had hoped, but it's a late apple and we were eating it before harvest time. This pretty apple hails from 18th-century West Virginia and was long considered one of our finest. An oblong fruit with yellow-green skin and russet patches, it's a parent of 'Golden Delicious'.

Less exotic apples, ones often found in grocery stores and farmers' markets, were sampled, too. 'Cortland', with tart, white flesh, had a solid "appley" flavor; 'Macoun' was honeyed, with warm-spiced flesh; 'Empire', a pretty round, red apple with white flesh, boasted a lively flavor, honeyed but also a little tart. I used these to make free-form tarts, using just a little sugar and melted butter and no cinnamon or spice at all so that they could be truly tasted. Tarts made from these flavorful apples were preferred to those made with supermarket apples.

The exquisite, late-season dessert apples we sampled need not be limited to eating out of hand. Amy Traverso, author of The Apple Lover's Cookbook (Norton, 2011), reminded me that 'Calville Blanc d'Hiver' is the traditional apple for making tarte Tatin and claimed that 'Esopus Spitzenburg' holds up well in baking. Traverso has even used 'Ashmead's Kernel' for baking, but says its tartness is better suited to cider than sweets. 'Grimes Golden', on the other hand, is terrific in buttery cakes, and 'Cox's Orange Pippin' does show up in English apple desserts when the tarter 'Bramley' isn't called for. All of these apples make great applesauce—something I make frequently, often with mixed varieties but always including some with red skins for their color. They can also be quartered, cooked in a pan with a little butter and apple juice, and served as a very straightforward but aromatic dessert.

Biting into a crisp apple right off the tree, one that snaps in your teeth and sprays juice everywhere, is a wonderful experience. But some apples continue to develop once they're picked, losing acidity and gaining perfume and complexity. Some apples need this time to come into their own, while others degrade to some degree, yielding crispness to softness, smooth flesh to grainy. Late-season apples benefit from sitting around for weeks (or more) before eating. Apples that ripen late have hard flesh and are likely to store well, which is why they can be enjoyed during the very last months of the year. Early-ripening apples have softer flesh and do not store well. The lovely 'Yellow Transparent' apples that appear in my farmers' market in July are there for a short time for this reason.

Apples behave differently depending on where they are grown. For example, 'Northern Spy' is crisp when grown in its New York home but turns out mealy when grown in southern states. But there are apples well suited to warmer southern temperatures. Their names give them away: 'North Carolina Keeper', 'Ozark Gold', 'Arkansas Black'. And while you might savor an apple by itself for dessert, apples are famously good paired with aged cheeses, sometimes to the benefit of the apple. Although 'Grimes Golden' was on the weak side when tasted alone, its flavor became more aromatic when accompanied by a slice of aged Gouda cheese.