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The heirloom apple trend: Growers cater to demand for diversity

5 min read

Food Retail

Image via Flickr user kthread

For generations, U.S. growers produced thousands of different varieties of apples with diverse flavors, colors, textures and uses. Years of cultivating only the few types we typically see in supermarkets got us out of the heirloom habit but, while many of the early varieties are lost to us forever, others are having a renaissance as chefs, home cooks and fruit fans find much to like in their varied flavor profiles. Chefs ranked heirloom apples fifth on the list of hot produce trends for 2014 in the National Restaurant Association’s annual survey.

Heirloom apples may be strictly defined as apples that go back centuries, and once in a while some of those varieties are rediscovered in yards and fields that have been neglected for decades, says Claris Ritter, produce manager for Alfalfa’s market in Boulder, Colo. It’s more likely, though, that when we say heirloom apples these days we’re really talking about a broader group that includes heritage and hybrid apples that have been purposely bred to create a new combination of crispness and sweetness.

Those are the two key characteristics grocery shoppers look for in apples, Ritter says, even as they get more experimental in their apple picking. “Some of the apples, if they’re just picked and you keep them cold, they are delicious, but once they get warm they get mushy,” she says. “People want an apple they can depend on to be firm and that eats well, and some of the heritage varieties don’t have the characteristics people are looking for.”

A lack of crispness, a tough skin, a tendency toward bumps — those are all part of the reason that so many varieties have fallen out of favor and disappeared.

Steve Ela sees apples as a symphony — the sweet varieties are like the piccolos and altos that grab your attention right away but fade just as the sweet-tart and then tart fruits play their longer-lasting notes.

“A mix is really best,” says Ela, a fourth generation fruit grower at Ela Family Farms on Colorado’s Western Slope. His farm grows about 23 varieties of organic apples, including seven that would be strictly classified as “heirloom.” Ela’s favorite, the Esophus Spitzenburg, was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.

Washington state grows more apples than any state in the country, with most orchards turning out a handful of varieties led by the familiar Red Delicious. Some 34% of the apples produced in the state last season were Red Delicious, followed by Galas, Fujis, Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious, according to the Washington Apple Commission. And, while there are about 7,500 varieties worldwide, in Washington all other types combined account for only 13% of the state’s total crop. “But some of the others are gaining in popularity,” says project coordinator Molly Simpson. “The trend is moving toward the new club varieties.”

Club varieties are apples developed specifically to be licensed to particular suppliers, like Stemilt’s Pinatas, CMI’s Ambrosias and Rainier Fruit Company’s Junami.

Many of the newer varieties are variations on a familiar type, like Newton Pippins that are kind of like Granny Smiths but not as tart, Ritter says. “A lot of these new varieties are a lot like something that already exists. There are a lot that are a lot like the Gala, for example, because they use a Golden Delicious to cross with something else that stores better.”

Blemishes and softness can be overlooked when the apples are going to be processed into juice or used in baking, so restaurants often have different apple needs than grocery shoppers, says Ritter.

Michigan may not produce as many tons of apples as Washington, but it’s right up there when it comes to the number of varieties growers produce.

Laura Bale, née Crane, grew up on the nearly 200-acre Fennville, Mich., farm that has supplied the on-site restaurant, Crane’s Pie Pantry, with fruit for more than 40 years. Today, the farm produces peaches, cherries and about 20 different kinds of apples. Customers can head to the orchards to pick their own in season, or buy their favorites at the restaurant, which serves a made-from-scratch lunch menu but is best known for its pies and other fruit desserts.

Most of the apple-based sweet treats are made with the Ida Red variety, which Bale calls “a good keeping apple.” In addition to its pleasing flavor, the fruit will keep all winter in cold storage. “The Ida Red is an older variety, but it’s not as old as some. We get some of our seniors coming in looking for a Spy, which we used to have years ago but we don’t grow anymore.”

As growers dedicate more orchard space to different varieties, it may present a challenge to groups charged with marketing the fruit, especially overseas, says Simpson of the Washington Apple Commission. The group is strictly an export marketer for the state’s growers, and its four biggest markets are Mexico, Canada, Taiwan and India. While the first two import several varieties, Taiwan typically takes only Fujis and India wants the popular Red Delicious, she says.

“We’re trying to get these markets to take more varieties because there will be less Red Delicious down the road, and we anticipate having not enough to meet demand.”