There Is No “i” On This Apple By
Apples have been around for a long time. People eating apples goes back to the Iron Age. They grew them in Ancient Egypt, the Romans loved them, and there is the obvious connection to us in the story of Eve and that darned snake.
We’re pretty sure they got their start in lower Europe and Asia, and the Pilgrims brought some seedlings and fruit with them in 1620. Thomas Jefferson was a prodigious apple connoisseur and John Adams proclaimed a good apple cider a fine drink for breakfast and throughout the day. Known for his crankiness, Adams wrote in his diary that his morning cider settled his stomach and alleviated gas.
But the apple has changed a bit since then.
If you go to the grocery store how many varieties of apples do you think that you’ll find? For that matter, how many varieties of apples can you name?
The majority of the apples that we see today are modifications of older varieties that have be crossed and grafted into something that T.J. and Cranky Johnny would wrinkle their noses at. Fuji, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and your average ShopMart apples have been developed over the years for one thing and one thing only: shopping with one’s eyes. A smooth, even skin, no bruising or blemishes, and clean, white flesh are the hallmarks of today’s boring apples.
There are some apple fans (and not the iPhone 5 kind) out there that are trying to bring some life back into our apples. Many of these fans are turning their apples into tasty ciders.
Virginia is a great climate for growing apples, from the rocky slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the sandy flats of the Eastern Shore. Jefferson, quite the horticulturist, saw this and had extensive orchards at Monticello. Over the years, most of the trees had died out, and Jefferson’s apples had fallen from the tree, so to speak.
Peter Hatch, Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds, was working with some archeologists and they found “tree stains” in the earth that seemed to indicate an orchard and also matched some of Jefferson’s extensive records of his estate. They set out to recreate the orchard of Jefferson’s days but were stymied by the dearth of apple varieties that had lasted as long as America.
In stepped Tom Burford, A.K.A. “Professor Apple.” There is a really neat article here that tells the story of Hatch meeting Burford and tells Burford’s story. He sounds like a true Virginia Gentleman and a real Virginia Treasure. A visit to any grower or cider maker here in Virginia will sing a sweet song of his influence.
While Virginia has a site devoted to apples, many of the individual farms and orchards have great sites with lists of the heirloom varieties that they grow and many offer tours and opportunities to pick your own.
Urban Homestead (catchy, isn’t it?) specializes in apple trees. Most of their orders call for the usual Virginia apples but they have a great stock of heirloom varieties and have a very comprehensive list of apples that will grow in our climate with some great descriptions. Benham or Black Limbertwig, Ozark Pippin or Pink Pearl, it’s on the list.
Albemarle CiderWorks offers 4 ciders for sale: Jupiter’s Legacy (named for Jefferson’s slave and chief cider-maker), Old Virginia Winesap, Royal Pippin, and Ragged Mountain. They use a Harrison apple for one of their ciders. The Harrison was a favorite of T.J. and thought to be extinct until “Professor Apple” found one hanging out in New Jersey and brought it home.
Foggy Ridge Cider in Dugspur, Virginia (yup…Dugspur. Way out by Fancy Gap and Meadows of Dan) makes its libations with Graniwinkle, Dabinet, Harrison, PommeGris (looks like a potato and tastes like ginger), and other classic apples.
Castle Hill Cider in Keswick uses Winesaps, Albemarle Pippins, Ellis Bitters, and others to make delicious wine-like ciders that are truly done the old-fashioned way. They have some German made vats for fermentation but are also using a kvevri. A kvevri is a terra cotta jug invented 6,000 years ago. The directions are simple: fill with apple juice, bury, wait. You plant the apples, then you plant the cider. Pretty cool.
So Ashmead’s Kernal, Buford’s Redflesh or Chisel Jersey. Haralson or Harrison. Virginia Hewe’s Crab or Yellow Bellflower. Farming isn’t always pretty and apples aren’t either. It doesn’t have to be shiny and perfect to taste good.
When Jupiter grew old and died at Monticello Jefferson wrote to a friend. His death “…leaves a void in my domestic arrangements which cannot be filled.”
Go find some good, heirloom, Virginia apples and fill your void.