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The Heir And The Spare: Preserving Heritage And Heirloom Apples

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Is it time to take a bite out of the big apple market?

When it comes to apples, Macs pretty much dominate the market but there are some that would prefer a shift to something even more old school than a PC. That’s right, I’m talking about bringing back heritage and heirloom apples.

Apples most likely originated in Kazakhstan from the Malus sieversii and brought over to America with European colonists then became a part of American culture with a little help from Mr. Appleseed himself, John Chapman. Around the turn of the 19th century, Johnny Appleseed bought some apple seeds from a Pennsylvania cider mill and headed to the Midwest to develop his orchards. At the time, the Homestead Act required settlers to plant 50 apple trees within the first year of holding their land and soon the apples, along with the settlers, began to establish their roots in America.

During the 20th century, the invention of rail transportation and the consolidation of farms changed the market and contributed to the decrease in apple orchards. There was less diversity and more demand for apples that could stand up to traveling long distances. Cary Fowler estimates that of the 7,100 named varieties of apples grown in the United States throughout the 1800s, 6,800 are now extinct. According to one estimate, 90 percent of the apples sold within the U.S. are from only 11 varieties, including McIntosh, Rome, Fuji and Red Delicious.

These apples have their benefits: they look good on store shelves, ripen reliably and travel well. But for some, a quirky heirloom or heritage would be the apple of their eye. The nonprofit group Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT), along with Slow Food, declared 2010 the year of the heirloom apple.  Slow Food USA also lists seven different heirloom apples in The Ark of Taste, their catalog of delicious and culturally significant foods that risk extinction.

There are reasons for the heritage apple enthusiasm–not only do they promote biodiversity, varieties like Gilliflower, Winesap, and Pink Pearl all have distinct tastes and textures that make some perfect for pies and others best for ciders. That’s the other thing heirloom apples have going for them–nostalgia. A family recipe for cider that has been passed down for generations wouldn’t be quite the same using another kind of apple. Even Thomas Jefferson knew there were no substitutions for a good apple. He wrote from Paris that “they have no apples here to compare with our Newtown Pippin.”

Apples That Don’t Fall Far From The Tree: Apples that are genetically identical to those from the past can be grown with grafting techniques.

Jefferson would be happy to know the Newton Pippin is still available and other varieties are offered through seed banks and nurseries. If you’re close to Geneva, NY, you can also visit the largest apple collection in the world (about 6,883 varieties) at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.

One of the best parts of about promoting heritage apples might be the recommendation on how to preserve them–in a sort of “an heirloom apple a day keeps the extinction away” rationale, many conservationists suggest eating heirloom apples to save them.

Well, if you insist.

I’m in Sonoma, CA, where it was estimated in 2009 that less than 10 farmers made a living selling apples.

These beauties will be used to make a tart using a recipe from California local food advocate and owner of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters, with a little help from Jacques Pepin.

 

This tart is so good it may soon be extinct!

Alice Waters’s Apple Tart

(via Smitten Kitchen)

Found buried deeply within my recipe bookmarks folder!

Dough:

1 cup (125 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick or 85 grams) unsalted butter, just softened, cut in 1/2-inch pieces

3 1/2 tablespoons (50 ml) chilled water

Filling:

2 pounds (910 grams) apples, peeled, cored (save peels and cores), and sliced

2 tablespoons (30 grams) unsalted butter, melted

5 tablespoons (65 grams) sugar

Glaze:

1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar

MIX flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl; add 2 tablespoons of the butter. Blend in a mixer until dough resembles coarse cornmeal. Add remaining butter; mix until biggest pieces look like large peas.

DRIBBLE in water, stir, then dribble in more, until dough just holds together. Toss with hands, letting it fall through fingers, until it’s ropy with some dry patches. If dry patches predominate, add another tablespoon water. Keep tossing until you can roll dough into a ball. Flatten into a 4-inch-thick disk; refrigerate. After at least 30 minutes, remove; let soften so it’s malleable but still cold. Smooth cracks at edges. On a lightly floured surface, roll into a 14-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick. Dust excess flour from both sides with a dry pastry brush.

PLACE dough in a lightly greased 9-inch round tart pan, or simply on a parchment-lined baking sheet if you wish to go free-form, or galette-style with it. Heat oven to 400°F. (If you have a pizza stone, place it in the center of the rack.)

OVERLAP apples on dough in a ring 2 inches from edge if going galette-style, or up to the sides if using the tart pan. Continue inward until you reach the center. Fold any dough hanging over pan back onto itself; crimp edges at 1-inch intervals.

BRUSH melted butter over apples and onto dough edge. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over dough edge and the other 3 tablespoons over apples. (Deb note: I found it nearly impossible to coat it with this much sugar, so I used a little less–more like 3 tablespoons. It made a lightly sweet tart, which we found perfect.)

BAKE in center of oven until apples are soft, with browned edges, and crust has caramelized to a dark golden brown (about 45 minutes), making sure to rotate tart every 15 minutes.

MAKE glaze: Put reserved peels and cores in a large saucepan, along with sugar. Pour in just enough water to cover; simmer for 25 minutes. Strain syrup through cheesecloth.

REMOVE tart from oven, and slide off parchment onto cooling rack. Let cool at least 15 minutes.

BRUSH glaze over tart, slice, and serve.

Image Credits: By Apple Inc. distributed under a CC-BY SA 3.0 license, Jeff Kubina, remainder by author.

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. Heteromeles 10:19 am 10/10/2013

    Amen! Per The Botany of Desire, the wild stocks of Malus seviersii are being depleted by development, so it’s important to preserve as much diversity of domesticated apples as well. It’s not like we can re-breed them from scratch if the current few best varieties fail, say, in the face of a changing climate and the emergence of new pests.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 12:44 pm 10/10/2013

    Is situation better elsewhere? Are people in other countries planting a wider variety of apples?

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  3. 3. L_Eplett 12:27 pm 10/11/2013

    Good question, Bora–something I’d like to know more about, too but couldn’t really find much. Along the way, I did see apples are getting sweeter and mushier from climate change–that is, if you believe that is really happening ;)

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  4. 4. vagnry 11:47 pm 10/11/2013

    I think the commercial “laws” are pretty much the same all over the industrialized world, apples, other fruits and vegetables are developed to look nice, be bland (and fruit to be SWEET), to travel well, to be stored for a long time, to be easy to harvest and ripen at the same time.

    Heirloom apples etc. are a niche production in Denmark, often from organic growers, but are mainly found in private gardens, and are difficult to find in most nurseries, but graft cuttings of many heirloom varieties can be ordered from apple collections.

    Layla, in norwegian the apple is called epplet:-)

    Link to this
  5. 5. L_Eplett 12:44 pm 10/14/2013

    Very interesting stuff, Vagnry–thanks for the info on epplets and epletts :)

    Link to this

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