Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins
Columnist

Virginia’s Mr. Apple: Tom Burford

Life is entirely too complicated to view Big Agriculture as evil, as some do, but if you want a poster child for the ills of mass-produced farming, you need look no further in this apple harvest season than the Red Delicious.

Put aside the arguments about the environmental costs of industrial agriculture and judge this insipid orb solely on its flavor. Large, lobed and red, all right, it is at best an inoffensive fruit: crisp, juicy but bland. At worst, it is mealy and bitter. The Red Delicious you eat today may have been picked a year or more ago and stored in a gas-controlled environment.

Adrian Higgins

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the Washington Post Garden Book and Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden.

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I recently traveled to an orchard near Charlottesville to meet a seventh-generation Virginia orchardist named Tom Burford, once aptly described as “the prince among antiquarian apple enthusiasts.”

He gave up his own orchard and nursery in Amherst County 16 years ago to concentrate on his genteel but dogged public advocacy of the heirloom pome and has just written a commendable book titled “Apples of North America.” I met him in the orchards of Vintage Virginia Apples and Albemarle Ciderworks, where he is a consultant. Sure enough, the conversation came around to the Red Delicious “cornucopia” of the Pacific Northwest. “I refer to it,” he said in his mellifluous and impeccably measured Virginia accent, “as the largest fruit compost market in the world.”

The original Red Delicious is an old apple from Iowa named Hawkeye. Successive selection for the needs of the Washington state apple-growing juggernaut has given us 300 strains of Red Delicious and the versions we consume today. I knew this, but I hadn’t actually seen the original Hawkeye. Burford handed me one. It is about a third the size of a Red Delicious, round, not elongated, and a creamy yellow with light red streaks. In flavor, it is all the Red Delicious aspires but fails to be, sugary and aromatic. Hawkeye is not a great apple — it lacks an enriching acidity — but it is scrumptious.

One of the lessons here is that there is no one apple: Every seed, if allowed to grow, would generate a different tree. For centuries, apple lovers would find a seedling they liked and clone it by the thousands by grafting it. Hence the apple, though not an indigenous creature such as the cranberry, has threaded its way through American history unlike any other fruit. Since the 17th century, apple varieties have defined the regions that spawned them and brought successive generations emotional as well as physical sustenance.

Before the age of the supermarket apple, people used to buy apples at orchards at this time of year. Our forebears were raised to know which varieties were for immediate consumption, which should be made into sauce, which for cider, which for baking and so on. They knew what to buy to put into the winter cellar. When the apples ran out in the spring, they waited for the strawberries to come in, and then the blueberries and the peaches.

Burford offered me a Black Twig, once a widespread commercial apple of the Blue Ridge. It is crimson-skinned, quite small and tart and juicy. Known for its keeping qualities, its flavor gets sweeter in storage and the skin becomes curiously greasy. Our impromptu field taste test also brought us to a tree heavy with Ralls, a small but historically important apple — one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites — with a sprightly acid-sweet flavor. It has endured here in part because it blooms after the frost-prone nights of April.

We moved on to an even smaller apple that he sliced open to reveal flesh that was white around the core but otherwise stained scarlet. “This,” he said, “is the Burford Redflesh.” It comes from a seedling found at the Amherst County home of Patrick Henry’s mother. At Burford’s family orchard, it was used to give a blush to the cider.

It is one of 192 apple varieties featured in his book, which shows the fruit with the cosmetic maladies that afflict apples that are not excessively sprayed.

I asked him why we had lost our connection to the apple. It wasn’t just the consumer’s shift from the local orchard to the supermarket, he says, but a phenomenon that occurred a little earlier.

People used to perpetuate superior, local apple varieties by grafting them: You take a budded, dormant stick — a scion — of the preferred variety and attach it in early spring to a rootstock. Grafting requires technical knowledge but it is not rocket science. (Burford explores the process in the book.)

After World War II, with the explosion of the consumer society, folks would simply buy apple trees from mail-order nurseries — the varietal decision had already been made for them and often included strains of . . . Red Delicious.

Helped by the local food movement, new generations have rediscovered the diversity of the apple and its link to a region’s culture and past. With his own help, Burford has lived long enough, at 78, to see a lost world return.

Across the country, a cadre of small-scale commercial orchardists have revived hundreds of neglected varieties. Burford refers to himself as “the fully recycled guy.”

On Saturday, he will lead the 21st annual apple tasting event at Tufton Farm near Monticello, home of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants. (Registration is required and space is limited. The center is also hosting a free open house and book signing.)

For the home orchard, some specialty mail-order nurseries sell antique apple stock, including Vintage Virginia Apples and, in North Carolina, Big Horse Creek Farm and Century Farm Orchards. Burford is due to give a workshop on how to graft apples Feb. 22 at Vintage Virginia Apples. Registration opens later this fall.

With that skill, you can become a master of your own apple destiny, as long as you are able to wait a few years before grafting and reaping the fruit.

Before I left, I mentioned that I lamented the lack of baking apples — I grew up with the superb and puckeringly sour Bramley cooker, which won’t grow in our climate. Granny Smith, hyped a generation ago as a premium variety, is “just awful,” said Burford. He is asked to judge apple pies. Often, he will say: “This is a very good cinnamon, lemon juice pie, but where is the apple?”

The secret is to use several varieties so that you blend sweet and tart traits with tannins and aromas, he said. He surveyed boxes of various apples that were in front of us and picked the ingredients for my pie: Grimes Golden (sugar), Idared (sugar-acid-tannin) and Jonathan (acid-tannin). The resulting pie was full of fruit that held up in flavor and body — the taste was complex and agreeably tart. It was a pie for the ages.

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