Produce Superstars: Are Apples An Endangered Species?

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Apples are one the oldest and most widely-grown of all plants cultivated by man, and to answer the question posed by my headline: no, apples as such are not endangered, but thousands of apple varieties most definitely are. One hundred years ago, as many as 15,000 varieties of apples were cultivated in the U.S., whereas today, eleven varieties make up 90% of all apples grown commercially. They’re the usual suspects: Fuji, Pink Lady, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Granny Smith, and so on. So, imagine my surprise when I saw these ping pong ball-sized heirloom beauties in the organic section of my local supermarket. Upon doing a little research, I discovered there are two feel-good stories here. One has to do with heirloom apples, the other with the farmers who grew them.

So, what are heirloom apples? You’ve probably seen, bought or possibly even grown heirloom tomatoes, old varieties which were once common, but which have almost disappeared. With apples, it’s the same idea: conserving old varieties keeps us in touch with our cultural history, safeguards genetic diversity, and provides us with a greater choice of tastes, textures, colors and culinary possibilities. Prominent among groups promoting heirloom apples is the Slow Food Movement which has published a wonderful booklet on the subject. In the Bay Area, Slow Food Russian River promotes Gravenstein apples in Sonoma County, where orchards have been declining for decades due to suburbanization and conversion to vineyards.

But, I digress. The crunchy, moist apples I bought are Crimson Gold, a variety developed in the 1940’s by crossing two other heirloom varieties, Yellow Newton and Esopus Spitzenburg, a crab apple. Crimson Golds had all but disappeared by the 1970’s, when they were rediscovered, and now they’re grown in small quantities in a half dozen commercial orchards. With a nice balance of sweet and tart, they are great for eating when you want a little snack, something less than a large apple. They’d be perfect to pack in lunch boxes or to carry in your pocket. I haven’t tried baking them, but, reportedly, they hold up well, maintaining good texture. I think you could simply pull off the stem and bake them whole.

The other feel good part of this story is that they are grown by a quality-conscious, family-owned business, Cuyama Orchards, in California’s Santa Barbara County. Howard and Jean Albano have been growing apples since the 1990’s on a farm 30 miles east of Santa Barbara. At 3,200 foot in elevation, their sixty acres of organic orchards produce well-known varieties such as Pink Lady, Fuji and Gala, but they’re also committed to growing heirloom varieties which they test market at Southern California farmer’s markets.  Recently, they’ve planted 200 trees each of heirloom apples from France and Turkey. Having grown up on a farm, I’m in touch with what a risky life it is, and so, I salute the Albano family for creating a thriving business and for helping to keep alive a part of our cultural heritage which could so easily be lost.

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2 responses

  1. Hi Gary

    The most amazing apple in England is Bramley which is ONLY used in cooking,for apple pies and baked apples. I urge readers to look out for them. There is an orchard in Oregon that grow them and I suspect there is one in Sonoma. It is worth tracking them down.

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