In 2017, I began planting an orchard of heirloom apple trees. These are old varieties that once flourished across America. Today, the supermarket sells us five or six common apples: McIntosh, Gala, Granny Smith. . . Our ancestors had literally thousands of varieties, prized for different flavor, appearance, texture, and use. Some taste of citrus, pineapple, or cherry; some are spicy or nutty. Some are best for fresh eating, some for baking, others for drying. Some ripen in August and others mature their flavors all winter. Some are for fresh cider and some for hard cider. The names themselves are a feast—Cox’s Orange Pippin, Hudson’s Golden Gem, King David, Canadian Strawberry, Golden Russet, Westfield Seek-No-Further, Hubbardston Nonesuch—a mix of botany, local pride, and old fashioned boosterism.
Wondering about Henry David Thoreau’s favorite apple (Blue Pearmain) or the apple that Jefferson tried to grow at Monticello (Esopus Spitzenburg)? They both grow at my orchard, alongside the apple that brought fame to Newark, New Jersey for cider that approximates champagne (Harrison). I also grow the grandparent apple of the now-famous Honeycrisp (Frostbite). Whereas Honeycrisp has a sugar-candy sweetness, Frostbite is closer to molasses. I have nearly forty trees representing thirty varieties, along with some pears, peaches, and cherries. When planted, they were mere sticks. Now, taller than I am, they begin to bloom and bear fruit. It has been a lot of time and an insane amount of work. Here I am standing in front of the blooming Roxbury Russet, which is the oldest named variety in America, developed near Boston in the 1630s.
Human culture is filled with apples. Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” traditionally understood as an apple tree. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took the fruit and did eat. . .” Eden’s apples: portal to the fall of man. Isaac Newton, William Tell, and Snow White all encountered memorable apples. Folk wisdom advises apples for teachers and “an apple a day to keep the doctor away.” A lover swoons for “the apple of my eye.”
The Trojan War, the greatest saga of Greek myth, stemmed from a beauty contest with the prize of a golden apple. Prince Paris of Troy judged the contest, awarding the apple to Aphrodite, goddess of love. In return, Aphrodite promised him the beautiful Helen of Sparta. Alas, Helen was already wed to Prince Menelaus, and so (begins Homer), “Anger be now your song, immortal one. . .” In Norse myth, the goddess Idunn tends apples that grant eternal youth. When Idunn is kidnapped, the gods begin growing old and frail. The Arabic collection One Thousand and One Nights contains “The Tale of the Murdered Woman,” in which lost apples lead to homicide. These were apples from the sultan’s orchard, picked for an ailing woman but instead found in possession of a slave, yielding a detective tale with enough twists to satisfy Columbo.
In the United States, the phrase “as American as apple pie” signifies national tradition and patriotic pride. During the Civil War, Union soldiers sang, “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.” And I am typing this essay on a machine from Apple Inc., among the most influential companies in all history. The list of auspicious apples is surprisingly long. Many fruits are sweeter and juicier–peaches, cherries, oranges–but to symbolize beauty, power, wisdom, and desire, again and again, humanity has picked the apple.
The first heirloom apple I ate was a Black Oxford. This was in 2009, soon after moving to Vermont. Eating apples is similar to tasting wine or beer: with experience, we recognize greater complexity and subtlety. What I recall from my first Black Oxford was not the taste but the appearance. Look at the photograph below, dark, deep purple splashed with specks like a starry midnight. The flesh is creamy white with a dash of green. After a lifetime eating McIntosh, this started my exploration of the world of apples
The Black Oxford was discovered about 1790, in Oxford County Maine, by Nathaniel Haskell. The skin is deep plum purple, sometimes nearly black, dotted with white-yellow lenticules; size is medium. This apple is rare, especially outside New England. Black Oxford is a late season apple, picked in November, and prized as a “keeper,” meaning it stores far into winter. When eaten fresh from the tree, the apple is firm and only slightly juicy. The white flesh has green staining and a mildly sweet grassy taste. The sugars mature in storage, and by mid-winter the Black Oxford is soft and sweet, with full apple flavor, but still somewhat dry. For me, the taste peaks in January, but others report eating them into spring. When made into apple sauce, the skin dissolves into a beautiful pink.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Black Oxford was a favorite throughout Maine. But times have changed: I once left a wedding in northern Maine, drove an hour to reach Oxford County, to taste this apple from its native soil. I found an orchard, but despite my enthusiasm, the man there had never heard of Black Oxford. I planted two Black Oxfords in 2017. One developed infection and had to be removed. The second bloomed this spring and is growing its first fruit. The photograph below shows young Black Oxford apples on my tree; the skin will darken in fall. The second photograph shows Black Oxford alongside gouda cheese, a fine pairing.
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