The end of September at the national buying office is "apple in the mail" time. Every few days we receive a carefully packaged box in the mail courtesy of our longtime friends in the apple trade. It is something of a silly tradition because all of us here know just about everything there is to know about the varieties produced for commercial sale. And while there are slight variations from year to year in the quality and condition of the fruit, I suspect the real reason growers send us apples is to remind us, after many months of apple availability being limited to imported and stored apples, that it is once again time for new crop apples.
The reminders are everywhere. At my local farmers' market the summertime reign of the peach has come to an end. Variety names like Last Chance and Last Tango are all that remain of the season. Aside from some late plums and grape varieties, the farm offerings shift from soft to hard fruit and apples take center stage. And while all apples have similar characteristics, like soft fruit there are some varieties that are better early in the season while others need more time on the tree to concentrate sugars.
Depending on where you live your local apple season will start as early as August or as late as October. As a rule, the large commercial growers like to have all the fruit off the trees by November. If they wait any later, they run the risk of losing the crop to winter weather. September is the month where we traditionally see the most activity in apples and the range of varieties that come to market can be dizzying.
Jonagold apples in Watsonville, CA
Out of all this variety diversity, there are some plant parentage similarities. Most early apple varieties have a Golden Delicious or Macintosh somewhere in their family tree (pun intended) that has helped define not only when they are harvested, but how they taste and how crisp they are. Varieties like the Jonagold and Gala are among the most successful early starters, but there are dozens of other varieties that have either Golden or Macintosh characteristics.
East Coast Honey Crisp Apples in New York State
One of the most anticipated early apples in the last few years has been the Honey Crisp. A chance Minnesota discovery in 1992, the Honey Crisp combines a spicy sweetness with remarkable crunch. At one time the variety was thought to be a bust because of production irregularities and problems in storage. While it remains a tricky variety to grow, the extreme popularity of this apple has prompted growers all over the US to put in trees. This year we expect unprecedented availability in organic and local conventional production from coast to coast.
Dick Rider, Watsonville apple grower
As a big fan of tart apples, I personally have a soft spot for green varieties. In my part of the country these can be early Granny Smith, Mutzu, or my local favorite, the Newtown Pippin. This apple has been grown in and around Watsonville for years. Though it was originally grown for juicing, there are few apples I like better for pies, tarts, or just to eat out of hand. There is also a similar variety called a Cox Pippin that heirloom enthusiasts swear by (I hope it is as good as they say because I planted a tree last spring).
October brings another round of varieties: denser, hardier apples that have a different set of characteristics. But to me, the early fruit defines the season and I always look forward to the first apples of the year. So even though I know the varieties and it's just a friendly business reminder that the season has started, I hope I never stop seeing those little boxes of apples arriving in the mail. It's my reminder that nothing beats an early apple.