Thanks to controlled atmosphere (CA) storage, apples are available year round. But the time to enjoy the full sensual gift of the apple is when they’re in season.
Lest I be misinterpreted, I believe anything that allows us to eat apples year round is one of the greatest technological accomplishments of all time. And I take full advantage of the technology, eating apples just about every day. But no matter how well CA works, an apple pulled out of storage in May is not a fresh apple. It might be remarkably firm, crisp, and juicy. It can even, if it wasn’t picked too early before going into storage, taste okay. What’s missing are the volatiles and aromatics that overwhelm your senses when you bite into a truly fresh apple. These compounds are the apple’s soul, but according to post-harvest horticulturist John Fellman, apples lose their ability to regenerate them after about four months in storage.
So enjoy them now, when they are best. If you’re reading this in mid- to late August, the first Galas will be ready in Washington. As the fall proceeds, you can anticipate a number of relatively new varieties, a welcome recovery from the sad lack of apple choice we suffered only recently.
Cripps Pink and Jazz are the first two that Bruce Barritt recommends you watch for. Barritt, a horticulturist at the Tree Fruit Research Station in Wenatchee, is in charge of an ambitious variety-breeding program for the state apple industry.
Cripps Pink is a wonderful apple, an excellent balance of sweet and acid. Same with Jazz, says Barritt, though it is still a bit hard to find. It’s been grown in Washington for about three years now, so it should start becoming more available. A cross between the Gala and Braeburn, Jazz is less acid than the Braeburn, says Barritt, but has a good balance and is crisp and juicy.
Others Barritt recommends are Pinata and Honeycrisp. Honeycrisp was developed in Minnesota and can be difficult to grow in our warmer climate. Some growers in higher elevations are having some success. Honeycrisp has an avid following, so taste it if you can.
Ray Fuller, who grows apples organically on his Stormy Mountain Ranch above Lake Chelan, has some additional recommendations.
Cripps Pink is a wonderful apple, he says. Unfortunately, it matures too late for him to grow it. It’s grown farther south in the state. Fuller does grow the sweet Ambrosia. “The bears up here love it,” he says.
Its flavor is sort of a cross between Gala and Fuji, he says. The aroma reminds him of banana bubblegum-though it doesn’t taste like that, he says. Fuller also grows Gingergolds, Galas, and Pinatas. He planted 30 trees this spring of Robella, a new German variety. It will be a few years before they hit the market.
Whatever the variety, Fuller has a few basic tips for buying good apples. “If it’s a colored variety, it should be that color,” he says. If the color is off or faded, it was probably grown in the shadier part of the tree. Such apples will have lower sugars and flavor and be less crisp.
Looks aren’t everything, he says. But they are an indication of what was going on in the orchard.
Stay away from the smaller grades of apples, he says, especially with Red Delicious.
In spite of being much maligned, the Red Delicious can still be good, he says. But the apples have to be ripe. Unfortunately, they are often picked before they are ready, because they color before they are actually ripe.
To make sure you’re getting a good Delicious, ask the produce manager to cut one open, says Fuller. The flesh should be white, not green. If it’s not ripe, it will taste like a beautiful red potato.
Also, be sure you’re not buying last year’s Red Delicious. The practice of carrying over last year’s crop is a major point of contention in the industry and has contributed greatly to the Red Delicious’s reputation as a beautiful but tasteless apple.
Again, ask your produce manager. If he doesn’t know, he should, says Fuller.
I recently ran across a brochure published in the 1930s by Washington Secretary of State Belle Reeves and the Washington State Apple Advertising Commission. Besides suggesting that the longer life expectancy enjoyed by Washington residents was due to our climate, outdoor living, and “protective” foods such as apples, the brochure lists the main apple varieties grown in Washington at the time. In addition to the Red and Golden Delicious were a number of less familiar varieties: Winesap, Yellow Newtown, Rome Beauty, and Jonathan.
Anyone who has had the fortune to sample these and other forgotten varieties understands there’s a whole world of taste has been lost to most of us. For example, at its best, the Golden Delicious is a rich, wonderful-tasting apple. But it is not as good, in my opinion, as one of its parents, the Grimes Golden.
Wonderful as they are, though, there’s a reason you don’t find the old varieties in your local grocery. If looks aren’t everything, taste isn’t either, I’ll reluctantly admit.
There are two reasons apple varieties fall out of favor, says Barritt. Either the consumer loses her taste for the variety, or the farmer simply can’t make any money growing it. The latter is more often the case with older varieties. They may be hard to grow or yield sporadically. Apples, particularly older varieties, have a tendency to bear a heavy crop every other year. They may not repond well to chemical thinners. Or they may simply not store well. Or maybe they’re just ugly.
One reason the Red Delicious was so dominant for so long is that it is relatively easy to grow. If we’re going to eat lots of apples all year round-and why shouldn’t we?-farmers are not going to seek out fickle, hard-to-grow varieties just so they can lose money on them.
Fortunately, many of the old varieities are being revived, but in niche markets. Look for them at local farmer’s markets or produce stands or high-end groceries. If you find them, buy them. The Golden Russett, for example, is as ugly as sin by today’s consumer standards. But once you taste one, you will never forget it. It is intensely rich, sweet, and tart, a marvelously complex apple.
No matter how easy to grow it may be, though, a modern commercial apple also has to taste good. Barritt has watched as the Red Delicious, once Washington’s pride and joy, has receded in the market, eclipsed by better tasting varieties. Unfortunately, the Washington apple industry became overly dependent on that one variety, even as consumers tired of it.
Even to the point of not supporting an active breeding program. Washington, the best apple growing region in the world by many accounts, has no other apples it can call its own, like the Red Delicious at the height of its glory.
Barritt started out in 1994 to change this unsettling situation.
Apples aspire to diversity and variety. Genetically, they are heterozygous, which basically means they are amazingly diverse. Plant the 10 seeds from any given apple, and you will likely get 10 very different trees.
So grafting is the procreation of choice for predictable apples. Material from the parent tree is grafted onto a rootstock.
In the past, new varieties generally derived from chance seedlings. Someone would find a seedling, like the apples it produced, and graft it.
But that’s not going to happen anymore, says Barritt. No matter how good some of those chance seedlings are, the process of just chancing across a nice-tasting apple with other commercially desirable features is, well, just too chancy.
Barritt is trying to speed up the process of finding Washington’s next great apple. Since 1994, he has been planting 5,000 young seedlings of known parentage every year.
My first tasting tour of his grand experiment was of a block of newly ripe Cripps Pink and Arlet crosses. Remember, even though hundreds of trees in this block came from the same parents, they are all different, reaching back for various genetic traits that will enable them to better reproduce themselves. The results were boggling.
Actually, we didn’t stop and taste all that often. If the apple was not attractive, Barritt wasn’t interested-because consumers demand a beautiful apple.
But then he’d grab one. “Try this,” he said.
Not bad. But just sweet.
Interesting, with some tannin.
“A challenge,” he said.
Hmmm. Sweet. And tart.
“This one we get a little excited about.” And so it went.
Since that day, Barritt has selected 20 candidates, reproduced them, and planted them around the state. Now we’ll wait to see how they develop under different climate conditions. And maybe, just maybe, out of these thousands of possibilities, we’ll have a grand new apple that will be Washington’s own.
For more on Bruce Barritt’s apple-breeding program, visit hort.tfrec.wsu.edu/breed.php.