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In Season

Take Your Pick

You'll Find More Heirloom Varieties Hanging Around

By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 3, 2007; Page F01

The scene at Catoctin Mountain Orchard last week was right out of a movie: apple trees marching up the side of the hill like columns of soldiers. So many kinds of apples maturing on the branches: Pink Lady, Jonathan, Golden Delicious and more. Pickers working their way along the rows, concentrating on the trees with the ripest fruit. Baskets filled over and over as the haul was emptied into large crates headed for grading and washing.

[See Recipes: Apple and Sausage Risotto, Baked Apple, Smoked Turkey and Cheddar Strata, The Cottage Pancakes, Chicken Scaloppine With Apples in Apple Cider Sauce and Luxury Applesauce]

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At the orchard's shop, apples filled baskets, crates and bags alongside all the apple butter, applesauces, apple dumplings and even ready-to-bake frozen pies anyone might crave.

It's the peak of apple-picking time, and Catoctin co-owner Bob Black is losing track of the number of varieties he has, but that's not a bad thing. The small orchard in Thurmont that he and his sister, Pat Runkles, own and operate has about 100 acres in cultivation. Black rattles off more than a dozen kinds of apples he is growing; then, walking through the orchard, he keeps pointing to more and more.

"People want choices, so we're always looking for the next great apple," he says. His latest addition is the Honeycrisp, a juicy fruit with a big flavor burst that was developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s. "It's a great apple," Black says, "but I'm working on getting it to grow here."

Honeycrisps have become so popular that "they sell faster than any other apple we grow," says Jim Frazee, co-owner of Twin Springs Fruit Farm in Orrtanna, Pa., which sells at 13 Washington area farmers markets including those in Arlington, Annandale, Dupont Circle and Takoma Park. He says his farm already has sold out of this season's supply because "they're so good, crisp and flavorful so early." Frazee recommends looking for the Jonagold, another high-flavor variety, if Honeycrisps can't be found.

At Vintage Virginia Apples, a business devoted to preserving American apple traditions that operates at Rural Ridge Orchard in North Garden, Va., more than 200 varieties are cultivated. The orchard, owned and operated by the Shelton family, produces some apples for retail sale in and around Charlottesville, but most of their business is selling unusual or hard-to-find apple trees. "About two-thirds of our varieties are heirloom and one-third are newer varieties," Charlotte Shelton says.

Driven by the family's interest in preserving lesser-known apples and by tasting heirloom varieties at Monticello, the project grew from 10 trees to 50, then to 100 and ultimately into a nursery selling trees to populate a back yard or fill a small orchard.

"We look for apples with high flavor, a counterpoint to the blander apples grown for their suitability for shipping and storage," Shelton says. "The apples we cultivate provide a more interesting taste experience." At Rural Ridge Orchard you'll find the Harrison, a hard variety. It was one of the premier cider apples in New England in the late 1700s and early 1800s, according to apple expert and historian Tom Burford, who lives outside Charlottesville. The variety had all but disappeared.

Burford holds tastings (see "Crunch Some Numbers" to introduce people to varieties he thinks have merit, both for preserving history and for enjoyment. He recommends holding your own tasting: "Tasting apples side by side and taking the time to appreciate the apple will change the way you see it." Eat apples with "deliberate consideration," he advises, taking time to appreciate their characteristics.

Burford has devoted his life to preserving and promoting the diversity of the apple. Part of his mission is helping people discover heirloom varieties -- such as the Black Twig, a large, green apple with red stripes and a rich, winey flavor, and the Harrison, which produces a sweet, smooth, full-bodied cider -- or even newer, more commercially available types. Call it apple appreciation.

If your appreciation can handle a pared-down apple history lesson, it would start with the first settlers at Jamestown, who found some native crab-apple varieties, albeit unsuitable for consumption. They planted the apple seeds they had brought with them to ensure a ready supply of fruit to make hard cider, their drink of choice, Burford says.

"The apple was cultivated for drinking, not for eating," he says. Large orchards were planted to get apples for pressing; the variety, size and appearance of the fruit were of little concern.

The discovery of apples that were good enough to eat was a happy surprise. Before the techniques of propagating and grafting became widely used, it was hard to predict what kind of apple a tree would bear. The seeds of one apple can produce many types of apple trees, Burford says. For cider making, it didn't matter; the apples were blended together. Ancient grafting methods allowed early Americans to cultivate varieties they discovered. Among the many fans of the "eating apple" was Thomas Jefferson, who cultivated apples in the orchards at Monticello. One of his favorites was the Esopus Spitzenberg, Burford says, a variety of the Jonathan apple that is popular today.

The classic American varieties appearing spontaneously in orchards were prized for eating out of hand. "Grafting techniques made it possible to graft a section of the tree you liked onto the rootstock of another tree to reproduce a wanted variety in an orchard, more for a dessert use or out-of-hand eating," Burford says. Old European varieties were cultivated here using the same technique. "Think of it as cloning," Burford says.

For the next 200 years, hundreds of varieties could be found growing commercially. Estimates of the number of varieties worldwide vary tremendously and rise into the thousands.

Over time, here in the United States, the demands of cold storage and long-distance shipping made a few varieties more desirable -- think Red Delicious -- and those came to dominate the market. The number of available varieties seemed to dwindle.

With the growing popularity of farmers markets and the eat-local movement, that trend is reversing.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a former Food section recipe editor, can be reached atfood@washpost.com. Her In Season column appears the first Wednesday of every month.

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