The Basics: ‘A’ is for Apple.
Fall. Changing colours from green to gold…to red…to orange. Crisp Air. Glowing fires. Pumpkins. Apples. Apples. Apples.
Apples: Some say over 5,000 varieties exist. Others quote 15,000. Either way, that is A LOT of variety, especially, when one considers that of those thousands, only about ten actually make it to the supermarket for our hasty fruit purchases. That is one major edit— too major! Thankfully, over the past decade, interested, savvy, risk-taking, taste seeking growers have been committed to the art of heirloom fruits and vegetables, so our selection of these American basics are becoming available for us to savour. And there is nothing basic about them…
From the road rounding First Beach, the Mansions gleam in the reflected light of the roaring sea below, solid bastions of history that housed powers of industry of past eras—entrepreneurs who developed specific American foundations we take for granted; railroads, ferries, banking, trade— they worked hard, they played hard in Newport, Rhode Island.
Today, not far, down winding roads, past granite Mansions and sweet shingled summer cottages, past t-shirt stands and Antiques boutiques, past windswept beaches and wildlife sanctuaries, entrepreneurs fuel their passion for hard work and the outdoors by bringing fruitful harvest to denizens of surrounding hills, cliffs and waterways. One of these thriving family businesses is Rocky Brook Orchard. An orchard? An orchard so close to paddle boards, marathons and yacht races? A stone’s throw? Yes! Eight Acres of 400+ trees with over 70 varieties of apples (And pears. And quince.) to pick, only 14 minutes away!
American Basics brought over by our ancestors and woven (actually, at first grafted unsuccessfully) into the vibrant tapestry of our country: hot apple pie (SO American! With Cheddar cheese or Ice Cream?), Johnny Appleseed (did you know he traveled around the countryside planting apple seedlings barefoot? Barefoot all year long. With grafting unsuccessful, the pilgrims planted seeds from the fruit they brought with them, the seedlings were pollinated and eventually grew to bear new fruit)), apple cider (water was often contaminated in the early days, so apple cider, of various proofs, became the drink of choice…morning, noon and night…winter, spring, summer and fall…we were an inebriated country!), moonshine (the apple kind), vinegars (sweet and tart), pig feed (wouldn’t you love it?)…
For me, apples ring synonymous with Fall; apple picking with friends swathed in woolen mittens, scarf and a mug of steaming mulled cider. What could be better? We pull into the drive, grab a wagon, and head up into the trees.
My favorite Newport Orchard, Rocky Brook, has varieties like Lamb Abbey Permain, Rubinette, Spygold, Akane, Niedzwetzkyana, Hatsuaki, Ashemead’s Kernal, Zestar, Calville Blanc, to name a few…Heirloom apples, some with 300 to 500 year histories on record, mixed with more common Fuji and Gala varieties throughout.
We run to a tree bursting with fruit. Wait! How do we know which is which and when they are ready to pick…? Each tree bears a sculpted tag stating the species and the perfect picking time. Colours of the rainbow correlate to specific months. You can come back again and again and again over Fall months from Labour Day through November to harvest different varieties to try. Perhaps this weeks’ menu of Crispy Potato Pancakes with Applesauce and Goat Cheese* calls for sweet ‘sauce’ apples, but next weeks’ Apple Stuffed Trout with Walnut Crust* and Apple Charlotte*, are best with Salad apples? Dessert, Salad, Cooking, Sauce and Vintage categories of apples are prolific. What do these categories mean exactly? Well, as I’ve learned from Mark Rosenstein, a chef in Asheville, North Carolina, an expert on apples and author of the wonderful book (with delicious recipes as above*), ”In Praise of Apples”, says, ‘…apples are a complex, complete food…’ They can be tart, or sweet; firm or soft; some hold their slice shape when baked, others go mushy– better for sauces; some turn brown almost immediately when cut, others will hold; some bruise easily, others don’t… etc. It is a real study. Proprietors, Katy and Greg Ostheimer, two of the most sincere, hardworking and gracious people one can meet, are also knowledgeable about which of their 70 varieties fall into the Dessert, Salad, Cooking, Sauce and Vintage categories. All one need do, is ask!
Filling our wagon with a wide variety, excited to try as many different categories as we can, it occurs to me, as unrest over health care continues— and most likely will continue for years to come—what better way to combat illness than ‘an apple a day’? If as experts proclaim, the nutrients in apples actually do keep the doctors at bay, perhaps our American progression should be not in funding more pharmaceutical and insurance companies, but in supporting the small farmer, who gives us, the every day human being, wholesome food with nutritional value, an opportunity to taste the bounty of nature, to take part in harvesting what we eat and to create our own great ‘picking’ date in the process? Did you know a Calville Blanc, a classic dessert apple, provides almost as much vitamin C as an orange?
Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.’ Perhaps this is because the apple is almost the perfect food for us? Go picking! And enjoy!
Rocky Brook Orchard. 997 Wapping Rd Middletown, RI. (401) 851-7989 Proprietors: Greg & Katy Ostheimer
In Praise of Apples by Mark Rosenstein. Available on Amazon.com