Cox’s Orange Pippin.

Cox’s Orange Pippin ranks among the most renowned heirloom apples. It was developed in the 1820s, in Berkshire, England, by a retired brewer named Richard Cox. The term “pippin” describes an apple raised from seed, as opposed to the usual method of grafting. Cox grew his tree from the seed of Ribston Pippin, another famous English apple, crossed with unknown trees in his orchard. The apple is basically round, medium size, and mainly orange or red, with scattered russetting. It came to America around 1850, and gained a reputation as a temperamental tree, prone to illness. According to a 1904 study, “It is not recommended for commercial planting, but is a desirable variety for the home orchard.”

Cox’s fame lies in the taste. The flesh is crisp, juicy, a light cream color, and tastes like an apple mixed with orange, banana, pineapple, and lime. Some sources describe marshmallow and coconut, though I have not noted these. The tropical flavors are unmistakable, varying as the fruit ripens, and sometimes overpowering the apple itself. I ate one Orange Pippin that tasted squarely like fresh pineapple, with only a distant aroma of apple. I planted two trees in 2017. One suffered fireblight, a dangerous bacterial infection, but the other grows nicely and this year produced its first fruit, pictured above and below.

Cox’s Orange Pippin, a tropical treat.

The flavor of many heirloom apples, including Cox’s Orange Pippin, varies markedly over time, and this is important to bear in mind. During my first seasons exploring the heirlooms, I often found the taste underwhelming. The apples, I learned, have their days of perfection, when the esters and aromatics attain peak flavor. And afterwards, we have an apple that is fine but forgettable. This transient and fickle character explains the near extinction of heirlooms during the last century. Mass agriculture required uniformity and stability. Producers grew the few hardiest apples that were predictable in taste, color, and size. And so for generations we quaffed cheap beer, forgetting we might sip champagne.

Several friends have asked me, “What’s the best way to eat an apple?” The question is slightly humorous and flattering, but I do think there is an optimum method, as shown in the many photographs of apples on my cutting board. Using a sharp knife, slice the apple in quarters, remove the core from each section, then divide each quarter two or three times. I think this begins a process of oxidation, similar to “letting the wine breathe,” that awakens flavors. This also salvages flesh near the core that we otherwise waste. At the very least, sliced apples and pears, elementally arrayed, look beautiful.

Luscious (left) and Seckel pears, alongside cheddar cheese.

Those needing further rigor can refer to Tom Burford, an authority from Virginia: “I find it mildly irksome to see someone eating an apple while walking down the street, unaware that a body sense event is happening, and perhaps focusing on something else entirely. . . Ideally, one should select a fruit of known ripeness and take it with a plate and knife to a quiet place. Slice it to mouth-size portions. . . and when the slice is in the mouth, concentrate. . . If given full attention, the act of eating an apple can become a mind-expanding experience.” Burford, who died recently near age ninety, took his apples seriously. Of one specimen, he wrote, “When I first tasted it, I had to sit down, I was so unsettled.”

Frostbite, patriarch of many famous apples.

The Frostbite apple was discovered in Minnesota in 1921. As pictured above, it is a medium apple, burgundy red, with fine white lenticules. The juicy, antique-white flesh has crystalline texture with sweetness somewhere between molasses and butterscotch, balanced with astringency similar to unsweetened iced tea, or even whiskey. According to one source, some people describe tasting yogurt or tobacco, but I have not noted this. It is sweet, complex, and intriguing, but not wholly pleasing. It should make an interesting addition to fresh cider. I planted one tree in 2017, and have eagerly awaited this first harvest. Thusfar I have eaten three, with about ten more ripening on the tree.

Frostbite apple, with paring knife, in a quiet place.

The Frostbite apple is rare. Yet it is the grandparent of one of our most successful apples, Honeycrisp. Whereas Frostbite is complex and ambiguous, Honeycrisp lacks all subtlety: explosively juicy and cocaine-sweet, it suits the common palate so well that orchardists call it “Moneycrisp.” More interesting to the connoisseur are two other Frostbite progeny, Keepsake and Sweet Sixteen. They both share the redolence of molasses, but have much less astringency. Sweet Sixteen has hints of cherry, and Keepsake, when made into applesauce, glows like Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Both apples were created by crossing Frostbite with Northern Spy, and both are much easier to find than Frostbite. I planted one Sweet Sixteen this spring, and it is growing well.

A bee pollinates aster this week at the orchard.

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3 thoughts on “The Orchard, Chapter V.

  1. With the exception of Granny Smiths, I generally find grocery store apples too sweet for my palate. My birthday cake was rhubarb pie.
    Your lovely descriptions of Frostbite, with its astringency and molasses, makes me salivate and, likely in vain, threaten another visit to the north. Thanks as always for sharing your natural gifts.

  2. Thanks for this, I always learn so much. Last week I stopped by Black Diamond Orchard in Trumansburg, NY and bought a pound of each of the cider apples they had harvested. My kids and I spent Sunday morning placing the dozen apples, on the kitchen table, in a triangular scatter plot between sweet, bitter, and sharp. Cox’s Orange Pippin was definitely the best to eat, though my boys were most excited to pack Pink Pearls for school to show off the very red flesh in the lunch room. No requests for Ellis Bitter.

    • This is great to hear! I haven’t even tried Ellis Bitter, nor have I planted one. . . it’s a classic old apple for hard cider. I imagine it tastes pretty bad!

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