WE HAVE APPLESIGN THE LIKES OF WHICH EVEN GOD HAS NEVER SEEN. Ahem. Sorry. What I mean is, hey! Guess what? It’s that time of the year again. The time of strange, mysterious apples. The era of apples that don’t show up in your grocery store. The epoch of apples that you can only procure from shadowy fruit carts in forgotten alleys that only appear under the light of the harvest moon. Apples that summon scarecrows to steal them. Dread, sinister apples.
Meaning, heirloom apples.
To give a little context, for those that somehow have failed to realize my obsession with apples, it’s this: years back I found an orchard at our farmer’s market, North Star Orchard, and they had boxes upon boxes of apples I was sure were a prank. Each sounded like some kind of hobbit bullshit, and I said, “These are all made up, they’re fantasy apples.” But no, as it turns out, they’re entirely real. There are thousands of apple varieties, and you only get like, five or six at your local grocery store. And those apples at your local grocery store have been in storage and transportation for a while. They’re old-ass apples, cultivated so that they stored well and traveled well. Tough, unruly apples, like the Red Delicious — once truly delicious, now only red. The Liar Apple. The Judas Apple.
So, I thought, I’ll take these strange apples home and review them, because that’s what you do on the Internet. You review things. Japanese Kit-Kats, and Odd Spatulas, and Those Teeth You Find In Your Nightstand Drawer. So began #heirloomapplereview, where I did exactly that. Except it’s Twitter, and Twitter kinda sucks, and mostly I feel like I was just starting to annoy people with it. So, I decided it was best to sequester this apple goodness in the ancient puzzle-box that it is the dusty ol’ blog. Remember those? Blogs? Good times.
Some administrative stuff before I begin:
Most of these apples are from Scott Farm in Vermont. A few of them are from North Star Orchard in Chester County, PA. This was a weird year for apples, honestly — the Scott Farm ones have always been sublime, but this year, they weren’t quite as amazing. Some were surprisingly small? (See photo below for a little Winesap dwarfed by the palm of my hand.) A few of them had some off-flavors. Not the farm’s fault, to be clear. Could be an odd year in general (certainly 2021 has been that in many ways), and maybe climate change is a factor. Not yet sure. Also, some variants below I had multiple versions of. So that let me get taste across a different spectrum. The apple spectrum.
Let us begin.
Black Gilliflower (Sheepnose)
AKA: Long Tall Apple, Skinny Jim, Brumley’s Gangle
Looks reportedly like a sheep’s nose, but I dunno what kind of monstrous clown livestock produces that as its nose. “Oh, that old pasture clown, we call Ol’ Scratch. Wool like the Devil’s taint, I say. Got that big ol’ red nose, like a drunk. They say you can eat the nose, if you’re brave enough.”
Anyway. I’ve understood that Black Gilliflowers are an acquired taste, and if that is the case, I have most certainly acquired it. Upon cutting into it, I gave a good long sniff (for one must attempt to detect the scents as apple esters are released into the world, and also this is how you become addicted to apples, by snorting their essence). First thing was an off odor — hard to say what it was, but it was almost chemically, oily. It didn’t last. I bit in, found it to be pretty fucking great. That’s it. That’s my sophisticated review. “Pretty fucking great.”
Okay fine you want more details. Medium texture, tender, coarsely grained. Supposed to be dry but I found it plenty juicy — not like, juice bomb, not an apple assault on my face, but not a dry bite. That bite contained a mix of honey, pear, and pineapple. Had a nice mouthfeel too.
AKA: Dark Orb, Blood Lump, and Azazel’s Throbbing Goiter
This apple, often a dark purple like a bad bruise, is a good counterpart to the Arkansas Black — kind of the northeastern equivalent. This year’s example (see above) wasn’t too dark. It had not yet turned evil enough, I suppose.
In years past, the Black Oxford was a rare treat, always one of the best apples I’d eat in that given year. I had two now, and they were not, uhhh, ideal. Right from the knife, I got a sulfur smell, which is not what you want. An apple that smells like a gassy cave does not make you want to eat it. But then the follow-up bite was no better. It was chewy, and chewy in the way that biting an old callused thumb would be chewy. It tasted more like a Winesap than I expected, and then on the finish, was redolent with notes of horseradish. Which is not what I fucking want when I eat an apple, what the fuck. Horseradish? Jesus. So, this was a bummer. I have one more, and they’re keeper apples — late-season apples often store well, sometimes into deep winter.
I might hold onto this one, let the flavors develop into December.
[Update: was better, but still not the sublime apple I get most years.]
AKA Cerulean Crustknobbin, LeMarchand’s Azure Bauble, John Stamos
There are some apples whose flavor I self-referentially can only think of as “apple-flavored.” They are, in some sense to me, the Platonic ideal — the tasty epitome — of apple taste. “What flavor are you getting?” you ask, expecting me to offer up notes of pipesmoke, mango, and regret, and instead I say, bluntly and in a honking voice, “APPLE. TASTES LIKE APPLE.” It is reductive and simplistic and yet, that’s what this tastes like. Like pure apple goodness. In trying to understand what that means, I think it means sweetness and tartness doing the perfect tango. You don’t taste honey, or pear, or Cheetos or treebark. It’s an apple that tastes like an apple. What a wonderful concept.
The flesh in this one was dense, with a crisp, impactful bite.
The exterior is obviously a showstopper, too — this specimen had quite a roadmap of russeting going on (kind of a woody, corky network on the exterior, rough to the touch, like an old man’s knee), but the joy is in that trademark blue shine. It’s a bloom you can actually wipe off somewhat. I tried to capture it with the image above. I don’t know what makes it that way. Ectoplasm in the form of ghost tears, I guess. Ha ha cry more, ghosts. Snowflakes. Psssh.
Cox’s Orange Pippin
AKA: Burnt Knobling, Ruddy Merry, and Southfarthing Fool-of-a-Took
The Cox’s Orange Pippin is a British apple, which is unsurprising because it is about as British a name as an apple can have. In the year 1937 this was actually the most popular name for young boys. “Cox’s Orange Pippin, come eat your Bangers and Mash or you can’t have any Spotted Dick!” your mum would yell at you from her bedroom in Big Ben. (Though this being an English apple is curious, given that I think in England the only good fruit they grow is sausages.)
Exterior has a trademark orange blush, and fits in the hand just-so, as if it begs you to throw it at passersby. But do not! Dare not relinquish the treasure you have in your grip. For it may be my favorite apple, year after year. Smells a bit like aerosolized pear as you cut into it. A medium-texture, medium-grained bite awaits, juicy but not embarrassingly so, fresh with tastes of lemon, honey, and tropical fruits. I’ve heard them called subacid, but I find the tartness to be in harmony with the sugar.
You will eat it and you will be happy, if you are a person who likes apples.
I am at my happiest in life eating one of these. Everything else is downhill.
This apple is the parent of many varieties, for it is hard to grow and so they’ve tried to grow hardier beasts that boast of equal or better flavor, and few I’ve found really rival it, with the exception of maybe the Holstein. Which is a cow, but also, an apple. Fruit is mysterious.
AKA: Angry Tom, Lord Fauntleroy’s Bunion, Ol’ Russell
I always like a good russet because they’re weird. A knobbed russet, for instance, looks like some kind of plague bubo. They’re scratchy and rough and not gold, not really, but more an eerie green, the green of the ghost of a swamp witch.
I had the advantage here of having two varieties of golden russet this year — the first photo is the Scott Farm, the second is from North Star. The NSO apple was a bit tough, quite dense, and tarter than I expected, though still with a preponderance of honeyed sugar taste. There came what for me is a trademark anise flavor, and curiously, a hazelnut finish I found quite pleasing. The Scott Farm variant was also good, and juicier, more tender — but sweeter, no tartness, and without as much overall complexity. Some grassiness on the finish. Perhaps better as a keeper.
They’re also tough enough to sand wood, if you care to.
Rating: 6/10, 8/10, respectively
AKA: Doctor Gravenstein’s Monster
Love Gravensteins. Didn’t love this Gravenstein. Mild in every way. Mild texture, mild honey flavor, middling tartness, mediocre existence. Not every apple is a good apple.
THAT’S LIFE IN APPLE CITY, KID.
Rating: Meh out of Ennh
Hudson’s Golden Gem
AKA: Gormley’s Gilded Panacea, Dobblin’s Cures-What-Ails-Ya, Steve
Initially I figured, okay, this is just a golden russet in big sneakers.
But it got weird.
First up: it’s a chonky apple.
Second: cutting into it instantly reveals the scent of banana and vanilla. Which, as you may suspect is entirely un-apple in its essence. Apples can definitely have curious smells and flavors. Banana isn’t even all that unusual. But this one was really strong with it.
Third: okay so sometimes you smell something zesty or strange with a cut apple, but it doesn’t translate to taste, it’s just part of the cipher of esters released — but yeah no, you bite into this apple and it’s like, “What if an apple had a threesome with a banana and some Nilla wafers.” It’s pretty amazing, if entirely out-of-sync with what you expect from an apple. The aftertaste is fascinating, too — the tartness of unripe pineapple hits your palate. It’s pretty cool.
Texture is medium-soft. Not mushy or anything.
Really cool apple.
Even if it sounds like snake oil.
Karmijn de Sonnaville
AKA: Carmine Sabatini, Carl Sunnydale
I’ve heard good things about these apples, and despite it’s fancy lad name, it’s not a particularly old apple — it’s from the late 1940s. (Sometimes you hear a fancy French name on an apple and that means it was an apple beloved by the monarchs of France, used both to eat and to pummel the unwashed poors.) So I was expecting big things with this one.
I… eennnh well yeah not so much.
It was fine! Totally fine. Floral and juicy, which is nice. But the juice wasn’t full of flavor and mostly it just tasted like someone watered down an apple. Had a nice crisp bite to it, at least. Though there was an aftertaste to it, bitter, like you licked the outside of a lemon and not the inside.
AKA: Corn Pop
Remember how I said the Hudson’s Golden Gem was a weird apple?
This one is even weirder.
So! Keepsake. Not sure if it really constitutes a proper “heirloom” apple, as it’s from the 1970s, but at this point that’s 50 years, so, who the fuck knows. Though I suppose that would suggest I am in fact an heirloom human. That’s what we should call the elderly from now on, by the way. How lovely is that? Heirloom. Whatever. Anyway. The Keepsake is known mostly as one of the parents of the much vaunted (and to me, mostly meh) grocery store apple varieties, the Honeycrisp. (Aka the HINEYCRISP ha ha I burned you, Honeycrisp, I burned you good.) (I’m so sorry.)
Your first impression, one not entirely clear in the photo I took, is that it’s oddly shaped. It’s like if you were looking at an apple on LSD — it has bulges and off geometry. A ferrofluid apple —
Then, I cut into it.
Sour smell. Instantly. Sour citrus, like a soursop or custard apple fruit.
Then, then, I bit it and —
What the fuck this tastes like corn.
Sweet corn, and a little apple, but also, corn. CORN. Corn? Corn.
I have never tasted an apple that tasted like corn. I was honestly convinced I’d fucked up my mouth somehow, that maybe I was on the COVID now, and it had begun destroying my taste buds with its insidiousness. My wife tried it and while she didn’t identify the corn flavor on her own, once I called it out, she was like, “Okay, yeah.” So, I knew my mouth was not broken.
C O R N.
The rest of it is kind of a syrupy sweetness, juicy and crisp. Not a bad apple, and I can taste now what it contributed to the Honeycrisp (an apple I honestly believe is too sweet for its own good and not nearly tart enough). Weird, weird apple.
Lamb Abbey Pearmain
AKA: Damn Crabby Bearstain, Wham Stabby Hairpain, Cram Flabby Sparebrain
Two words: white wine and elderflower. Wait that’s more than two words. Shit. Shut up, I can too do math. Good texture, not grainy, juicy, mild, some bites almost lean savory.
What I’m trying to say is: nice apple. The kind of apple you take on a few dates, nothing really happens, but it was nice and occasionally you think fondly of said apple and you wonder where it’s been, what’s it’s up to, is it okay? Maybe you check its Twitter account, you DM and say hey how are you and the apple answers back and you have a polite exchange but not much really comes of it, and then once more the both of you fade into each other’s backgrounds.
I had two versions of this apple, both from the same orchard (Scott Farm), and it showed the variance between two apples of one type grown by the same people in the same place —
First apple was a little nutty, a little bit honeyed, but like, funky honey. Not clover honey, but more alfalfa honey, or sourwood, something a little more mysterious.
Sweet and juicy, finely textured, dense.
Second go around, a couple weeks later, this iteration was both milder (it had lost its funk) and brighter (gained some tartness). Whether this is due to the variation from fruit to fruit, tree to tree, or because it spent just a couple-few additional weeks in storage, developing flavors, I cannot say. Maybe it went through a transformational experience. Maybe it explored itself on an international summer trip and really came into its own. It came to realize who it really was, down deep, and that’s no small thing. Of course eventually it’ll sit too long and wrinkle and rot, AS WILL WE ALL. What I’m saying is, relish your sweetness and complexity now before you decay and are eaten by squirrels who want to get drunk on your fermentedness. This has gone off the rails so I’m going to stop now.
Rating: Both a 7/10, for different reasons
Reine des Reinettes
AKA: The King of Pippins, The Queen of Queens, O Captain My Appleton
Oof. In 2019 I had one of these and it was one of the best fucking apples I’d ever eaten. This year I had one and I wanted to punch myself in the mouth after eating it.
Here is the journey I went through:
“TART TART TART”
“Why is it so dense”
“Oh ew it’s grainy like weird mustard”
“IT IS STEALING MOISTURE FROM MY MOUTH WHY”
“My tongue hurts and this is bad.”
“GIVE ME MY SALIVA BACK YOU SPIT-THIEF.”
“Now I taste lawn clippings, the end.”
So, ennnh, not great, Bob. Not great. It just goes to show, sometimes an individual expression of a type of apple can be total shit. Unfortunate, but whaddya gonna do. Onward and upward.
Rating: Fuck This / Goddamn Apple
AKA: The Town Drunk, Osbaldeston’s Cherry Fist, Tuckerton Bezoar
Pretty classic apple, the winesap — note that this is not the same apple as a Stayman Winesap, which was reportedly a seedling of a Winesap, which is to say, has nothing to do with a Winesap at all. For those who don’t know, apple seeds are more or less a genetic lottery. The seeds from one type of apple will not make more of that apple in tree-form. For that, you must graft. No, the seeds from an apple will be a roughly random carousel of apple possibilities, and most of them will be assy-tasting tannin-heavy apples that at best will work for cider and at worst will make you hurk.
This was not the best version of a winesap I’ve eaten but it was fine — it hits with that red wine and rose petal vibe, lots of floral esters suffusing the air and your nose and your mouth AND YOUR EYES AND NOW THE APPLE CONTROLS YOU wait I mean, not that last part. Hard-breaking apple. Bit chewy, but that’s not uncommon, I’ve found.
Oddly bitter finish, bitter enough to sully the experience.
Also, surprisingly tiny, this one. Sat in my hand like a li’l crabapple.
Okay, that’s it
You can go home now.
(Also, to remind, I was on Felicia Day’s podcast, Felicitations, talking about AAAAAPPLES.)