Thursday, October 5, 2006
Maybe the most tragic thing about the Red Delicious apple is that it started out with such promise. Born 120 years ago as the Hawkeye, a sweet, blushed yellow fruit so good it was rechristened Delicious, it was seized by men of science and meticulously transformed into the mealy, indifferently flavored and embarrassingly large fruit we know today. The Red part is not in dispute. But Delicious, we hardly knew ye.
That engineered pome, which in the 1980s accounted for three-quarters of the annual crop in the apple-rich state of Washington, put a generation of Americans off apples. True, it packed well and stored well and played its heroic role in the theater of postwar industrial agriculture. But fruits, like people, can’t be good at everything. Plant hybridists have to choose from the buffet of genes, and for the Red Delicious they picked the ones for color and longevity over flavor and crunch.
Affluence and the accompanying expectation of quality, coupled with the “slow food” movement, have produced in the apple-eating public a revolution against all that is represented by the monstrous Red Delicious. Sweet, crunchy Gala and Fuji are the new supermarket favorites. Behind them, a host of unusual varieties is forming for a sustained assault on tastelessness.
Meanwhile, in small orchards around the country, the originally delicious Hawkeye is enjoying a renaissance alongside heirlooms with names like Blue Pearmain, Arkansas Black and Opalescent. Tart apples like Winesaps and Newtown Pippins are making their way to market and winning loyal followings.
“We’re seeing people who want apples that have got flavor,” says Vince Gizdich, a third-generation apple farmer in Watsonville. “They have gotten so tired of the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith in the store, and there’s so many other wonderful-tasting apples.”
For Nick Prevedelli, who helps his parents Frank and Sylvia run Prevedelli’s Farm in Corralitos, the phenomenon is summed up in people’s response to the Gravenstein, an Old World variety that flourished in California in the early 20th century. “When people talk about the Gravenstein, they say, ‘That apple reminds me of my childhood.’”
We may never see Calbel Blanc Winters and Carolina Red Junes in the produce aisles of the neighborhood grocery store. But then, 15 years ago no one would have predicted that Cherokee PurpleCK tomatoes would appear there, either.
“We’re probably a decade behind the heirloom tomato excitement,” says Neil Collins, owner of Trees of Antiquity nursery in Paso Robles, which specializes in heirloom fruit stock.
Lately Collins has witnessed a surge of interest in old varieties like the Spitzenberg, which was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite; the 17th-century Roxbury Russet, possibly America’s oldest apple; and England’s 13th-century jewel, the White Pearmain. “This year,” he says, “I’m barely able to keep up with apples.”
The Monterey Bay area is positioned perfectly to benefit from the rebirth of the good apple. For before Washington became famous for its apples, there was Watsonville.
At its peak in 1908, the Pajaro Valley grew millions of apples on 14,000 acres, rivaled only by a slightly smaller industry in Sebastopol. The more lucrative strawberries and bushberries have whittled the local apple acreage down to 2,600. Few growers still pack and ship. Of the handful that remain, most grow for the big Watsonville-based juice maker Martinelli’s.
There are exceptions. Gizdich Ranch sells to local Safeway and Nob Hill stores, and at its uniquely branded 58-acre orchard, where customers can pick their own apples and buy pies and preserves. Prevedelli, pesticide-free for 15 years (but not certified organic because of the hassle and expense), has carved out a niche by selling at 10 area farmers markets every week, including the Tuesday market in downtown Monterey. Both grow unusual and heirloom varieties you won’t find in most stores—starting with the Newtown Pippin, the apple that built Watsonville.
Tart and crisp, the green Newtown Pippin was a favorite of George Washington, according to popular orchardist lore. It was also uniquely suited to the Pajaro Valley climate, just as the blush-striped Gravenstein with its mellow, complex flavor thrived in Sebastopol. Both are highly sought-after cooking and baking apples that also make good, tangy eating. The Gravensteins are on their way out for this season, but the Newtown Pippins will be ready in a week or two.
“It’s a good keeper, but you don’t see it in the store because of the russeting on top,” says Nick Prevedelli, pulling down a branch at his family orchard and indicating rough brown patches near the stem of a ripening Pippin. “People in the supermarket want the perfect apple. I think this is beautiful.”
Gizdich, too, takes up the cudgels for delicious but cosmetically challenged fruit. “Winesaps and Black Twigs—we like to say they’re our ugly apples with the beautiful flavor,” he says. “They are ugly shaped and they have russeting on them. It’s just a characteristic of the apple. But it’s really funny how people kind of strive for perfection.”
Another thing, Gizdich says, is that consumers associate sweet with good and tart with bad. “And that’s a fallacy,” he says. “A lot of the tangier apples, the flavor holds up more after it’s cooked. Black Twig makes a wonderful pie. It’s like, ‘Wow! Now this is an apple pie!’”
The Prevedellis’ 26 varieties include several important to Watsonville’s history, and all are available in the coming months. The Yellow Bellflower, which dates from the 18th century, co-anchored the local industry along with the Newtown Pippin. Yellow with freckles and a little blush, it’s mildly tart-sweet, with a clean flavor. The Hauer Pippin, also called the Christmas apple, was bred by a Santa Cruz man. The My Jewel was created in Watsonville in 1950 by crossing a Winter Banana with a Golden Delicious. The result is a small, lovely, aromatic apple with a hint of, yes, banana. It’s grown on just a few local orchards. It was my favorite in a side-by-side tasting of eight venerable varieties. It’s just coming into season.
The apple tasting is good cheap fun for food nerds, by the way. It’s amazing how, after a bite of a tart Winter Banana, a Royal Gala explodes with multilayered sweetness. When the apples are as fresh as we’re able to get them here, the distinctions are all the more pronounced. Even the Classic Watsonville Red Delicious, daintier than its supermarket cousin, is crisp, perfumed and loaded with flavor.
That’s the joy of buying local. Says Sylvia Prevedelli, a native of northern Italy who brings an uncompromising insistence on flavor to the family operation. “We taste everything first. If I taste the apple itself and I find, like, it’s not sweet enough, we don’t pick it. We wait. And people can’t find a flavor like we have.”
An intriguing development on the heirloom apple scene is the return of pink-fleshed varieties like Pink Pearl, developed in the 1940s from the Surprise apple, and its lookalikes Pink Sparkle and Pink Princess. By and large these are very tart apples, not to everyone’s liking, but they’re too beautiful to ignore.
This year, locally grown pearlescent apples with cotton-candy pink flesh appeared for the first time in dishes at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar and Bernardus Lodge’s Marinus. Chefs Craig von Foerster and Cal Stamenov had used Pink Pearls from Devoto Farm in Sebastopol, but these were plucked from 150 newly bearing trees down the road at Earthbound Farm. Head farmer Mark Marino tells a story about their grandpappy tree that begins with the health guru Andrew Weil.
“He lived in Carmel Valley in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Marino says, “so he’s the one who told me about this tree with these pink apples. It took me a while to sleuth it out, but I found it.”
He trimmed its fruiting wood and grafted it onto stock back at Earthbound’s Carmel Valley R&D farm. Five years later he had fruit with no name. He reckons the original tree at 70 years old—too old for a Pink Pearl. It could easily be a Surprise, he says. He hasn’t bothered to have its parentage tested.
And so this chapter in the local story of heirloom apples sputters along like the rest of life: on a combination of missing details, chance, careful work, waiting, fluctuating fortunes and favorable conditions.