October is a perilous time for apple and pear growers everywhere, because you never know what Mother Nature will dish out this late in the fall. The 2009 harvest season is no exception - snow in New England and hard freezes in Michigan and Washington State are putting late harvest varieties at risk of severe damage or even total loss. This is also an El Niño year, which means a wetter, more blustery winter - a concern even after the harvest is finished and the trees enter dormancy. The damage this season has been minor so far, but still painful. A prized organic Braeburn apple crop in Washington was nearly wiped out by cold that also caused severe damage in Pink Lady crops (generally the last variety to come off the trees). The risk of freeze damage is a powerful motivator for growers to get apples and pears off the trees all over the country. The positive side effect? Local product is now at its best and most abundant.
In my time with Whole Foods Market I have come to really appreciate the efforts or our grower partners both large and small. With our larger growers, we get stability in supply and consistent, flavorful varieties. With the smaller regional or local growers, the season is more fleeting but flavor and diversity is what we harvest in exchange. Like peaches and other tree crops the differences in local apples and pears are subtle, but they are real and remarkably diverse. Here are some of my personal favorites.
West Virginia: In colonial times the most common apple grown in the U.S. was the York Imperial - a dense hardy apple that stored well through the long winters. These days the descendent of the York can be found in limited supply in the Mid-Atlantic states in the form of an apple called the Mountaineer.
Another antique variety that commonly appears in the Mid-Atlantic is the Nittany - an apple that is crisp like a Gala but has a more complex, almost spicy flavor. Both are delightful for baking or eating out of hand.
New England: New York State produces some remarkable common and not-so-common varieties of apples and pears. Galas, Golden Delicious, and Macintosh apples are among the largest production varieties of apples. The common Bosc pear and the smaller Seckle are also produced there. For me the New England states are all about Macintosh and like varieties. Macouns, Stayman, Cortlands and Empire are produced in other parts of the U.S. but there is something special about a New England Macintosh and all its cousins.
Washington State: When you think of large-scale apple production chances are Washington State comes to mind. For Whole Foods Market, Washington State is extremely important because it is hands down the largest producer of organically grown apples in the U.S. But outside of the huge growing areas in Yakama and Wenatchee, the antique subculture flourishes with varieties like the King David, Ashmead's Kernal, Caville Blanc, and the Thomas Jefferson favorite, the Spitzenburg. The restaurants and bakeries in Washington State have also invested great effort into finding inventive was of serving apples.
Oregon: Crossing the border into Oregon, the focus for me shifts to pears. There are many great apple producers in Oregon but the early season Starcrimson pears from the Columbia River Gorge followed by what I believe to be the very best pear in the world, the Medford-area Comice, makes it hard to think about anything else. Both are immensely sweet and juicy, but it is the creamy smooth texture that makes them spectacular.
My central California coast local favorite is the Newtown Pippin and the Watsonville Jonagold - the latter grown by Dick Rider not 10 minutes from my office. Both are getting a little harder to come by the later into the fall we go. What apples are still grown in California tend to come off the trees much earlier than those in the northern states. The last time I visited the Rider farm, Dick showed me a tree that he said was some old unknown variety farmers grew here in the 20's and 30's for canning and apple sauce.
The apple is green and deeply russeted. It made me wonder how many other lone local specimens are bearing fruit all over the country, filling the pies and eventually the tummies of families everywhere. It's a special thing to discover a local favorite. I've been fortunate to experience so many but I am certain there are many, many more. Share your favorite if you have one, or if you find yourself in any of the above parts of the country, try one of mine.