By Bob Difley
The third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, is known as the father of the Declaration of Independence, the patriarch of democracy, and the grandfather of the Fuji apple. Well, OK, maybe the apple is pushing it a bit.
However, apple-fan Jefferson obtained cuttings of one of his favorite apples from his friend Edmond Genet, the French minister to the U.S., and then encouraged a local nurseryman, Caleb Ralls, to plant the cuttings. The resulting Ralls Genet apple became a popular late bloomer, enabling it to withstand late-season frosts as it continued to ripen.
Jumping ahead to 1962, Japanese growers crossed the Ralls Genet with the Red Delicious and called it the Fuji, after their famous volcano. Hugely successful, it now follows only the Gala, Red Delicious, and Granny Smith as the fourth most popular apple in the U.S.
However, the Red Delicious became a favorite of supermarkets because of its long-lasting qualities: glossy bright-red color, and classic uniform apple shape. Many of these super-stores soon began stocking only one red apple (Red Delicious), one Yellow (Golden Delicious), and one green (Granny Smith).
What happened to taste?
The quality of taste, it seems, was not on the priority list of either grower or mass merchandiser. Of the thousands of high-flavored heirloom apples once grown, it soon became almost impossible to buy a really tasty apple, settling instead for one that we were told was the perfect apple.
But in a classic apple revival over the last several decades, small growers began to realize that there were discerning apple-taste aficionados who desired the richness and uniqueness of heirloom apples, and they soon had trees producing Cortland, Macoun, McIntosh, Mutsu, Macolin, Empire, Spartan, Gingergold, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Paula Red, and many more apple varieties.
These were names we had never heard before. And some of them were funny-looking, small, oddly shaped, or not even shiny – not necessarily the image touted as the perfect apple. Even some of the colors looked like faded shades of traditional apple colors.
But it was a revelation when we bit into one of these oddballs. And what a revelation it was! The taste was something we had never experienced with the old standby Red Delicious. More and more people ventured out to the rural small growers where you could stroll through the rows of trees and pick your own fresh apples right off the tree. And what could be better than a natural food that is both tasty and good for you? Apples are not only low in calories, but they contain no cholesterol or sodium and no more than 1% fat. They also contain many essential vitamins and minerals.
U-Pick orchards are scattered throughout the New England states and many have expanded to include other farm products, such as blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, honey, organic vegetables, cherries, pumpkins and peaches. Others offer their own farm brand of maple syrup, jams, fresh pies, cookies, donuts, and bread – and of course newly pressed apple juice and cider.
In fact, the family orchard has become a place for the whole family to celebrate the Fall Harvest, with many farms now having farm animal petting zoos, playgrounds, hayrides and picnic tables. They have become weekend destinations, sources of family entertainment and play for kids of all ages, as well as stopping points on scenic drives throughout the countryside, enjoying the wonderful fall foliage. And almost all have plenty of parking, even for RVs.
A look at varieties
Here are a few of the varieties grown in New England and some of their unique characteristics.
McIntosh – This sweet and tart, tender and crisp apple is the most popular in New England. Good for longer-term storage.
Cortland – A favorite for cooking as well as eating as its flesh is slow to brown. Stores well.
Macoun – An extra crisp and sweet all-purpose apple.
Northern Spy – Spicy and tart, it is a favorite with pie makers. Good long-term storage.
Mutsu/Crispin – A dense, juicy eating apple.
How to find a pick-your-own apple orchard In New England
To find an orchard near you go to the New England Today Travel website. And most apple orchards have plenty of room to park RVs.