THIS SEASON YOU'LL have no trouble finding the red delicious, the golden delicious, the stayman winesap apples that Virginia orchards grow so well. But you'll have to know who to ask and what to ask for to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of biting into an albemarle pippin, the very best apple, according to many, that Virginia has ever grown.
Albemarle pippin, newtown pippin, yellow newtown -- it goes by different names. It's a large green or yellow apple, a little bit higher than it is wide, with broad shoulders, a level base and a shape that tilts like a york apple. When it ripens, often as late as November, the albemarle pippin blushes with a peachy glow. The flesh is firm and juicy, the tangy taste just sweet enough. It's good for eating, good for cooking, good for making applesauce and apple butter, good for pressing cider, too.
And the albemarle pippin stores well. Keep a bushel on the porch or in the shed, where they winter at a temperature just above freezing, and you can expect to crunch into a pippin long after Christmas, perhaps making a pie with the last of your pippins come April or May.
Sounds like the perfect apple. Many people have found it to be.
"They were eaten and praised by Royal lips, and swallowed by many aristocratic throats," Sallie Coles Stephenson, wife of the British ambassador, wrote back to her Albemarle County relations in 1838. Apparently Queen Victoria favored the pippin, and during her lifetime the hillside orchards of Albemarle County, south and west of Charlottesville, enjoyed tremendous prosperity because of steady apple trade across the sea.
But then the Depression hit, and the bottom dropped out of the apple export trade.
"In 1930 -- I seem to remember it was 1930 -- the Virginia Chamber of Commerce invited 10 of us apple growers to go to England with a cargo of apples," says 85-year-old Bourne Wayland of Wayland's Orchard in Mint Spring Valley, Crozet. "We carried over 40,000 barrels -- that's 120,000 bushels. We were entertained by the Mersey Harbor Commission, in Liverpool. We went over because we could feel the trend had gotten away from the pippin."
But a few Virginia apple growers couldn't stave the worldwide economic decline, and with the Depression, out went the pippin. It hasn't reemerged since.
"Back then, my orchard had thousands of pippin trees," Wayland says. "They did a big planting of pippins in 1890 to 1900, then we planted more in 1928 to 1930. But we took them out to make room for the improved varieties. Double-red this, double-red that, you know." Now Wayland's Orchard abounds in red delicious, with 700 trees. Out of his 1,500 trees total, only seven grow the albemarle pippin.
"The people who sell apples want red apples," Wayland says. "I'll tell you a story, and it tells a lot. Back in those days I remember a truck driver coming up to my orchard. He said to me, 'You know and I know that these green apples are the best. But the people out there want red apples.' "
Other Albemarle County orchardists agree that the pippin's yellow-green color seems to have influenced its demise.
"The main reason you don't see it on the market is that it isn't a pretty apple," said Henry Chiles of Crown Orchards in Batesville. "The apples people want to buy today are big and red and shiny."
"People like a red apple," agrees Purcell McCure of the Virginia Apple Commission.
"Washington State did that," says Dick Goodling of McClanahan & Company in Covesville. "They spent millions of dollars promoting their apple -- 'The long apple with five points.' They put it in the centerfold of everything but 'Playboy.' So now the new generation, when they think of an apple, they think of a five-point like the red delicious."
The upsurge of popularity in the granny smith, originally shipped from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, but now grown in the United States, may make a small dent in the predominating instinct for red apples, Goodling believes. But he predicts that its popularity will be short-lived. "I think the red delicious will be around for a long time."
Despite the fact that the miscolored albermarle pippin rarely sees its way into supermarkets, most of the apple growers familiar with it agree -- it's a superlative apple.
"The albemarle pippin is one of the best apples ever grown -- for eating, cooking, shipping, storing," says Purcell McCue.
"It's certainly a better apple than the red ones," says Henry Chiles. "Everybody knows that." His 500-acre orchard includes less than one acre of pippin trees, yet people send him orders from the Midwest and the West Coast every year, asking specifically for pippins.
J.T. Henley, of Henley's Orchard in Crozet, doesn't grow any pippins to sell to the public. "But I've got a few grafts stuck on trees for my own personal use. I get three or four bushels off them for my own family."
Bourne Wayland harvests fruit from his seven pippin trees, and says that every year people come to him looking for albemarle pippins. "It's a nice tart apple. The way I say it, it kind of bites back." Wayland likes the pippin so well he has planted a newly developed hybrid apple called Virginia gold, created at Virginia Tech through a genetic mix of the albemarle pippin and the golden delicious.
Not everyone in the Virginia apple industry champions the albemarle pippin, though.
"I don't like the apple at all," says Dick Goodling, the only dissenter in the group of albemarle orchardists. "It has to be ripe before it's any good." He's speaking from the office of his cold storage business. There, the 75,000-bushel red delicious harvest is already complete, but the pippins growing in neighboring orchards aren't even ripe on the trees yet. Goodling quips: "You've got to be over 70 to like a pippin."
But Covesville orchardist Christopher Hill, 33, proves otherwise.
"The albemarle pippin is unsurpassed, unsurpassed," Hill says. He owns Cider Creek, an organic apple orchard where 15 aged pippin trees still stand, up rocky slopes about 20 miles south of Charlottesville.
"I would say that from the economics of the way the pippins went, some fool might have put in trees in the 1940s, but more likely they were planted before the Depression." Hill's trees produced at least 80 bushels of pippins last year, but he expects many fewer this year, since the albemarle pippin is an alternate bearer, meaning that one year's crop is sizable, the next year's slim, in a predictable alternating pattern.
Hill's orchard may be the only one around that promises albemarle pippins for future generations. In 1978 he cut twigs off the old trees and sent them to a nursery for bud grafting. Horticulturists remove a single bud, which carries the genes that guarantee the delicious fruit, and graft that bud onto selected rootstock. Once they're sure that the bud will sprout, they cut off all other woody growth on the seedling. "So you grow the entire tree off one bud," as Hill puts it.
Five of these little four-year-old pippin trees now stand six feet tall, in among their statuesque 50-year-old forebears in Hill's orchard. Some of the older trees are beginning to decline to production already. A new generation of albemarle pippin trees is coming along, but no one can tell if a new generation of pippin afficionados follows. HONEY APPLE CAKE 1 cup honey 1/2 cup vegetable oil 3 eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla 3 cups flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon cloves 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 3 cups diced or shredded unpeeled apples 1/2 cup walnuts (optional) 1/2 cup currants (optional)
Beat together honey, oil, eggs and vanilla until frothy. Sift together flour, soda, salt and spices. Just barely blend the dry ingredients with the wet, then fold in the fruit and nuts. Bake in a large, greased loaf pan at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 hours. POME CHUTNEY (Makes 1 1/2 to 2 pints) 2 large, tart apples 2 large pears, not too soft 2 large green tomatoes 1 large onion 1-inch-long chunk of ginger 1/4 cup raisins 1 cup brown sugar 1/3 cup cider vinegar 1/2 teaspoon salt Spices as desired: Cinnamon, nutmeg, mace allspice, cloves, coriander, cardamon, cayenne, garlic, curry powder
Dice cored fruit, tomatoes, onion. Mince ginger. Mix all ingredients together, adding spices as desired. Bring liquid to boil, then cover and simmer very slowly for at least 1 hour. BAKED APPLE DELUXE 1/4 cup butter 1/2 cup brown sugar 1/4 cup sorghum syrup Juice of 1 lemon 2 tablespoons sweet sherry or liqueur 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 4 large apples Butter for pan
Mix together butter, brown sugar, sorghum syrup, lemon juice, sherry cinnamon and nutmeg. Core apples, leaving blossom end (or bottom) of apple unpunctured. Butter a square baking pan. Place apples in pan and divide mixture above among them, tamping gently into each core. Cover and bake apples at 300 degrees for 1 hour. Remove cover for last 10 minutes. Serve with powdered sugar or whipped cream.