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To us, they’re an afternoon snack, good for slicing over cereal or baking into a special dessert.
To our mountain ancestors, apples were subsistence foods, and they raised a host of varieties that ripened from early summer through late fall. Here are some of the more fascinating heritage varieties to look for this autumn as you visit orchards and farmers’ markets or flip through catalogs.
Apples with a History
Known as Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple, the Esopus Spitzenburg originated in Esopus, N.Y. in the 1700s, but Blue Ridge mountain homesteaders quickly made it a favorite in our region. Jefferson helped popularize the variety as he is known to have ordered 12 trees in 1790 for Monticello. Ripens: mid to late October. Taste: Crisp, juicy dessert apple.
Before the Red Delicious came on the scene to claim the designation, the Ben Davis held the title as the worst-tasting apple in the region. In his book “Old Southern Apples,” North Carolina’s Lee Calhoun says the appeal of the variety was that it “could not be bruised with a sledgehammer” and that it was “shipper’s dream apple.” Those traits, plus its bright, waxy yellow and red skin made it very appealing. Ripens: October. Taste: Coarse and tough like cork.
Hands down, the Yellow Transparent makes the best applesauce I have ever eaten. Introduced from Russia in 1870, this pale yellow apple has been a staple on mountain farms ever since but commercial orchards rarely grow the variety, as it is only a fair keeper. I came across a tree on a Highland County, Va. farm last August and begged the landowner to let me pick a bushel. The farmer kindly assented. Ripens: July to early August. Taste: Delicate, tender flavor in applesauce.
Lee Calhoun relates that he finds more Horse apples in old southern homesteads than any other variety. Yet I have never seen this yellow variety for sale anywhere. Calhoun believes it originated before 1800 in North Carolina or Georgia. Mountain folk cherished this variety as a drying apple and it was often the one spread across tin roofs. Ripens: July and August. Taste: Firm, juicy.
How an apple that is mostly grown in the northern reaches of Georgia and Alabama came to be named the Red Detroit is something of a mystery. Calhoun relates that in the 1920s the U.S.D.A. attempted to change the name to Cherokee, but to the surprise of no one native to the region, mountain folks stubbornly kept the original appellation. My favorite use of this variety is as a summer pie apple. Ripens: July and August. Taste: Crisp and fruity in pies.
The Red Astrachan sports a number of alternative names, among them Red Ashmore, Abe Lincoln, Early Red and – most appropriately – Early Rus. That’s because this red variety with smooth skin originated in Russia. But once the Red Astrachan arrived in the Blue Ridge in the mid 1800s, it became a favorite and flourished in all of the states. Ripens: June and July. Taste: Crisp and juicy.
Urban Homestead, Bristol,Va., 276/466-2931, firstname.lastname@example.org
Vintage Virginia Apples, North Garden, VA, 434/297-2326, www.vintagevirginiaapples.com.