Heirloom Apple Alert – The Season is ON!

heirloom apples on labeled bags

Early apples, left to right. Back row: Dutchess of Oldenburg, Wealthy. Second row: Milton, Gravenstein (2), Charette. Third row: Hazen, Early Russet. Little guys: Whitney

I don’t usually get around to issuing one of these alerts until the other end of the season, when it’s more like “last chance” than “get ready.” Two reasons:

1. My interest in apples is very small when there’s still a chance that a peach might be found. (I don’t want to hear about broccoli while there are still tomatoes, either).

2. Although some of the most famous and best loved heirlooms are early ripeners like Yellow Transparent and Chenango Strawberry, they aren’t, as a group, my favorites. Too sweet and too soft.

But this year I’m on the bandwagon right near the start of the parade, because the first batch from my heirloom apple CSA has arrived, and – are we surprised? Well, yes, mildly – a couple of them are delicious.

The CSA, called Out on a Limb, is one of a comparatively new breed that’s as much educational as commercial. Rather than originating from a single orchard, it comes from the fertile mind and extensive network of grower/explorer John Bunker, a man who has made a life work of identifying, celebrating and sharing Maine’s vast assortment of heirloom apples. (His wonderful book on the subject, Not Far From the Tree, is out of stock at retailers but available through the CSA)

What OOAL has promised:

A) There will be five deliveries, one every other week, each consisting of about 10-12 pounds of assorted apples.

B) All told, there will be “20 or more varieties of rare and highly flavored apples with a wide range of uses, appearances, histories and flavors.”

C) The varieties will be described and a few recipes provided in a bi-weekly newsletter, published on the CSA site.

After that, surprise time, and if the first delivery – eight varieties! – is any indication, there are going to be a lot more than 20 surprises.

Or not. At least at first tasting, most of this initial batch is what might be called “early as usual.” They have different flavors but are united in being uninteresting for fresh eating. The newsletter puts a lot of emphasis on applesauce, and roasted applesauce is indeed where most of mine are headed (please see note 2 in the update below).

Only exceptions are the not-very-russeted Early Russet, which I happily ate in its entirety, and the thin-skinned little Whitneys, which have the requisite apple snap and plenty of juice to carry a flavor that tastes almost pre-spiced. Only a very deep love for my husband leads me to even think about sharing.

Faithful readers may notice I’ve not said anything kind about the Gravensteins, which I have glowingly praised in the past. Unfortunately, this group isn’t worth praising, a good reminder that fresh fruit, like all produce, varies from grower to grower and year to year.

Could be that my regular supplier (Schoolhouse Farm, in Warren, Maine) grows a better sub-variety; there are a lot of apples that go by the name of Gravenstein. Could be that these were harvested a while ago (Gravensteins don’t keep). Could be the weather.* Or of course some combination.

I picked up my CSA share the day before I left Maine for 10 days in the Hudson Valley and didn’t have time to get some Schoolhouse fruit for comparison. So I’ve been looking for Gravensteins down here. Thus far no luck. But I did find a stand selling Rhode Island Greenings, which anyone who bakes will know is very good fortune indeed.

apple pie the easy way

(Never fail ) Deconstructed Apple Pie

The recipe is here

apple bundt cake with nuts and raisins

Big Chunky Apple Cake with Pecans

The recipe is here.

* For many Maine growers, this has been a year from hell. In an increasingly common pattern, there was a long warm spell in early spring, followed by heavy frost. Flower buds opened, only to be killed en masse. Then there was a long summer drought, just when what little fruit remained was needing water to develop well.

Some orchards, like Sewall’s, in Lincolnville, suffered complete crop failure, while others, like Mainely Apples, in Dixmont, were completely spared. Averaged out, it’s looking as though Maine’s total will be down from last year’s by about 30 percent. For more, check out this recent story in the Bangor Daily News.



1. I seem to have neglected to mention Cammy Watts, John’s wife and partner in the farm. Given how hard she works and how much she contributes I’m feeling quite red in the face.

2. Cooking the first batch of apples helped a LOT. Big reminder that heat changes the flavor of fruit (and that even sweet fruit is sometimes improved by sugar)

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  • Susan Scheid Said,

    And who, pray tell, could possibly resist a deconstructed apple pie (particularly if made with heirloom apples)? Yet I will have to say this is my favorite quote from your missive: “(I don’t want to hear about broccoli while there are still tomatoes, either).” It’s actually been a great year for brassicas in our little patch. Tomatoes not bad either, particularly the volunteer brandywine that grew up in of the compost bin!

    Happy to hear about the successful brassicas – maybe time for kale and apple salad? Also happy to hear about the Brandywine; volunteer tomatoes ( especially long-season types like Brandywine) don’t always make it to ripeness in our neck of the woods,

  • Vee Said,

    Oh this made me wander back over what precious little heritage apple knowledge I have. I once spent a day in George Stilphen’s orchard http://www.fedcoseeds.com/trees/apples/oxford.htm where the schoolchildren, other teachers, and I had the most amazing tour and listened with fascination to his discussion of raising black apples from the time of Chaucer and grafting different varieties onto a tree. There was also a smoking of a honey bee hive involved and a discussion of arachnids. It was an altogether lovely day.

    My mother’s favorite apple was Gravensteins and I have yet to find any anywhere on this end of the state. Hope that you may find some. What I hear the most about lately, and I’m sure that they are pedestrian, are Honey Crisps.

    Enjoy those apples. As my tomato supply is dwindling sharply, I suppose I must turn my attention to other things. It won’t be broccoli.

    Oh Vee, I am SO jealous of your visit to George Stilphen’s orchard. Don’t know if you got a copy of his book while there, but if so, hang on to it for dear life. I just tried to find one to buy and they all cost hundreds! As for the Honey Crisps, well worth a try. At their best they’re really good, genuinely crisp, sweet enough for Bill and almost sharp enough for me. I say “at their best” because quality seems to vary a great deal, from orchard to orchard as well as year to year.

  • Vee Said,

    Don’t I know it! I found one at the flea market last year for $35 when I didn’t have the extra cash. Darn wasn’t it gone when I went back for it later. So, the answer to that question is no, I don’t have one. Yes, I’ve seen the prices. I’m keeping a watch at the book booths at all flea markets. If I find two, I’ll snag one for you! ? Okay, next time I find a Honey Crisp (but doesn’t it sound like a cereal?), I’ll give it a try.

    Hey Vee,

    What a great offer! Please do! (Must add that if you find two of this rare book you DEFINITELY have a flea market touch worth exploiting into a new career.) Meanwhile, many thanks for the reminder to pay attention to books when prowling around in non-bookstores.

  • I’ve arrived at your blog after borrowing (then ordering) your very fine book, “Reading Between the Recipes” — thank-you for writing about cooking from the garden, as well as gardening for the kitchen, all this time. I’m most saddened at the news that Bob and Mia suffered a disastrous year. They along with John Bunker have been my apple heroes ever since attending one of MOFGA’s Maine Apple Day several years ago. I’m looking forward to trying your apple cake recipe since I’ve been on a quest ever since the delicious example I sampled in Italy recently… and, if Vee finds a third copy, do let me know..

    Dear Diary ( how could I resist?),
    Thanks so much for all the kind words – about my work and about Bob and Mia and Everybody’s Apple Hero, J.B.
    I hope you enjoy the apple cake, though I’m not sure it’s going to taste like anything Italian. Also hope Vee is reading your words and does somehow luck into a whole cache of the books!

    • … and thank-you for giving us the vicarious experience of your apple CSA — my husband, the Gardener, wouldn’t let me join once he figured out we would be away for half of it.

      Don’t know if it’ll move your husband, but for what it’s worth, I was away for two of the five distributions this year – once unexpectedly, once when I knew it would happen. Gave away my share both times, which made the recipients very happy, but if that doesn’t seem like a good option there’s always sharing your share: you pick up when you’re in town, your partner does when you’re not.

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