It seems that most times I don’t notice apples. In my home we almost always have them around but they are like milk, juice or any other basic staple we buy every week. We eat apples less in the summer when there are so many other great domestic fruits available, but apples always seem to make it on our shopping list. The only time apples rise above the normal buzz of my daily life is when they are absent; gaps in available supply (like we had in August and early September this year) really stand out with a commodity so common and reliable.
Predicting the fall apple and pear harvest dates here in the US is always hard. Apples are grown in just about every part of the country so with weather as wild and varied as it has been this summer, pinpointing exactly when the fruit will be ready has been more difficult than most years. Additionally, fruit importers from the southern hemisphere ship their fruit before the expected domestic harvest. When the domestic harvest comes late, there will inevitably be a gap in supply. By late September we have made the transition from summer to fall fruit at our stores, but only now are we seeing harvest volumes start to build to support the change.
Another factor affecting this year’s harvest is fruit size. Apple trees are alternate bearing — meaning every other year the fruit load is larger or smaller depending on the life cycle of the tree. 2011 is a “low” bearing year so this means there are fewer apples on the tree. When this happens, average fruit sizing tends to be higher and takes longer to mature as a consequence. This, in addition to cool summertime weather conditions on the west coast (where most of the country’s organic production is located), were the biggest factors in the delay. Like other tree fruit, apples have early and late bearing varieties. Softer, low-density fruit tends to come off first (like Gala, Gravenstein, Gold and Macintosh types) followed by denser, slower-maturing varieties like Fuji and Pink Lady later in the autumn. Even the late-maturing apples have new sub-varieties that mature faster, but like most fruit the flavor is best in the early varieties. Like peaches, the best early varieties are determined by where you happen to be standing in the US. In my part of the country the best early variety is hands down the Jonagold. A cross between a Golden Delicious and Jonathan, the Jonagold is crisp, sweet and juicy with none of the early starchiness common with new crop apples. Of course the early apple everyone is waiting for is the Honeycrisp — a wonderfully flavorful apple that has exploded in popularity in recent years.
Thankfully, the weather has cooperated in the last few weeks and apples are showing up in larger volumes at our stores and in farmers markets. Depending on where you are, the effects of the great apple supply gap of 2011 have diminished and we are all awash in wonderful new crop fruit. Apples (Jonagold!) and peanut butter are on the menu again as a breakfast staple and I am back to taking apples for granted. Maybe not as much as before — apples, it seems, are a big part of our world.