Red Astrachan to King David: Apple tasting impressions summer/fall 2012
This has been our best season for apples so far, with something like sixty or seventy of our varieties in fruit. We are through the early season and into the mid season now. What I mainly want to do in this post is briefly introduce some ideas on a philosophy of apple tasting and selection, and then cover some of the more promising apples we’ve eaten so far. I’ll include a few notes on some of the less promising apples as well. I was somewhat remiss in taking photos, but I’ll try to do better for the rest of the season.
Some varieties bore only an apple or two, and others in enough quantity to get pretty well acquainted. Sometimes it takes a few years in bearing condition for the trees to produce exemplary fruit, so most of the varieties that were disappointing this year will be given a stay of execution to prove themselves of some worth before deciding to convert them to another variety by grafting.
It is also a learning curve to figure out just when to pick each variety. Some should be ripened on the tree and eaten without delay. Others should be picked early and stored for months before eating. It takes some time and experimentation to figure out just when to pick and eat the things. So, in some cases, we were only able to get preliminary impressions, and in other cases, no useful impressions at all. Further, many of the varieties are buried somewhere in the recesses of Frankentree. He has too many varieties grafted on to ripen them all really well. Weaker or poorly placed varieties get buried beneath vigorous branches. That means that some lack adequate sunlight for really good ripening and color. I try to keep that fact in mind when assessing the fruit. Some of the promising types will be grafted out into better locations for further assessment.
Remember, the whole reason I’m doing this to find good apples; actually, I’m doing it to find the very best apples. But what is good in one place will not be good in another. So, some of our rejects might be the best thing ever under different climatic and cultural conditions. Conversely of course, what is great here might not cut it elsewhere. Still, reviews like this are a place to start in selecting varieties. Our climate is dry in the summer and can get pretty hot with temps regularly in the 90′s and reliably above 100 for a few periods during the summer. because it is dry, disease pressure is usually pretty light, but the heat can greatly affect quality in some varieties.
A few notes on tasting. I’ve spent a lot of time listening very carefully to vintage vacuum tube audio equipment which I collect and repair, and I think I can make an analogy to apple eating. My take home message after a few years of careful listening was as follows. You can sit around and analyze exactly how your equipment sounds, breaking down each variable and measuring by quantity and quality. But, in the end, if the point is to enjoy music, the experience should be taken as a whole and the overall impression on us should be, well,… ENJOYABLE! Simple enough, but easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees as they say. What I primarily rely on in assessing audio equipment now is not whether the sum of the parts should add up, but rather whether they actually do add up. The best question to ask is “do I want to keep listening”? Is the music compelling? Do I want to turn it up, leave it on, sit and listen and get lost in the music. Is there emotive force in the music- does it move me? Am I tapping my foot? Or, on the other extreme, do I want to jump up and turn it off. My overall reaction is what ultimately matters the most if the goal is to enjoy the music. I’m noticing the same phenomenon in taste testing apples for which I’ll use the term compelling.
Am I compelled to eat the apple? That compulsion could come from many complex co-factors. For instance, it could be said that a somewhat mild and understated apple is tame and not very intense in flavor. If my expectations of that apple are too loaded with comparisons to other apples or if I have an over reliance on a few particular traits which I’ve identified as ideal in a good apple, I might not notice that it’s just really compelling to eat; that, in it’s simplicity as a fruit, there is a formula that simply works. Creston is such an apple. For other imminently edible apples the formula may be quite different. They may demand my attention with intense flavors. I might find myself chewing with great intent and sucking at the pieces to extract every bit of juice from them. Whatever the case, the edibility factor, how everything comes together to make us want to eat an apple, is ultimately the best acid test for apple selection when it comes to eating quality. Paying attention to whether or not an apple is compelling to eat is the most useful single criteria because it brings everything together under one roof if it’s good, or tosses it out on its ass if it’s not. Not only can the complex factors that create harmony, or a lack of harmony, in a single apple be difficult to analyze, but trying too hard to do so can disrupt the experience of eating and enjoying a good apple. Breaking down all the elements into their component parts, while interesting, is ultimately of less real utility than just taking the basic encompassing response of mind and body. Enjoy the Music!
All that having been said, I will of course still be analyzing apples for flavor components and other details like texture and juiciness, along with edibility. There are of course other considerations, but my impressions on cultural traits are sparse as of yet, so they are not addressed here all that much.
One thing I’m learning this season is that there are going to be a lot of apples that have high potential here. Determining those which will find long term favor with us will be a journey. Quality in these matters are always measured in benchmarks. Something can come along which resets the benchmark and changes the whole perspective. Fortunately, with apples there is such a variety of flavor, such a multitude of uses and such a long season, that plenty of room exists on the homestead for variety. With over 200 varieties currently in residence here and more on the way, I think the long list of suitable apples will be pretty long indeed, and the short list may ultimately prove challenging to draw up. It will be necessary to live with the trees and their apples for a longer period of time to come to know them well enough for all of that to jell. Fortunately, the art of grafting allows great flexibility in changing over from one variety to another. For now, we have some losers and some keepers. Will the keepers be kept? or will they get bumped by something better? Give me another 10 years.
So, lets look at some apples:
Red Astrachan, just edible when it’s the only game in town. This is our earliest apple by a good stretch being ripe here in the second week of July and done by the 1st week of August. My early impressions were that it was not worth eating. It is an acidic apple, low in sugar and a little sparse on flavor. “Thin” describes it pretty well overall. By the end of the season I had decided I could enjoy eating one when in prime condition and chilled. It is primarily a cooking apple and is alleged by some to make great apple sauce. I think that would be with sugar added. I did a little cooking with it and it seemed good enough I guess. I would like to replace it with something better in that season, but if it’s the best thing going at that time, I might hang on to it. I am collecting as many early apples with promising descriptions as I can to fill this niche. Red Astrachan sets the bar pretty low as a benchmark. Older literature tends to rank this apple higher than I would, so maybe it has more potential in other climates.
Sunrise, Early and promising, but… This apple started out promising. I’m still somewhat interested in it, but by the end of it’s short season I was a little cold. It gets points for being early for sure. Sunrise is an attractive apple which has some neat flavors and a crunchy texture which should be popular with modern apple eaters. Flavor hints were green grape, bubblegum (tonia), and later a sugar cane or jujube like sweetness. All in all, pretty tame flavor profile, but interesting when it was prime. It is a sweet apple. I realize that sweet apples lacking in acidity are popular with some people, so those people should take note. I think it is a very good sweet apple at that season. Still, without a balance of acidity it falls flat, and I tend to lose interest pretty fast. If some acidity could be injected Sunrise has a lot of other good qualities considering it’s season. I’ll give it a chance for another year or two, but I’m not super hopeful.
Kerry’s Irish Pippin, new benchmark in early apples. This old Irish apple was as early as Sunrise, which is just slightly ahead of Gravenstein. Around here that was second and third weeks of August this year. It is a small apple with a peculiar line running up the side like a seam. Like Sunrise, it gets points for earliness but, as one source said, it’s a good apple at any time of year. I don’t have much to say about particular flavors, but it was quite good, rich for an early apple, fruity, maybe some spice. tonia says dried mango and pear. The texture is, firm and fine grained and pleasant to eat, not particularly juicy, and not the texture that modern apple breeders are aiming for and consumers are coming to expect. All in all Kerry’s is the most promising early apple here this year and the new benchmark for such. Tim Bates of the Apple Farm in Philo is a big fan of this apple and I got my cuttings from him. Thanks Tim!
Gravenstein, Could be better, should be better. Gravenstein was not very good here this year. We never got one that was really prime. Part of that is due to bird damage with not a single fruit remaining unpecked. I’m inclined to think that Gravs are great when they are just right, but just before and just after, they are of little account. That “good then gone” character is typical of early apples in general. I’m still hoping for better things from our Gravenstein tree, but at this point I’m inclined to continue grafting over more of it to other early apples. We live not far from West Sonoma County which is famous for growing great Gravensteins. A few samples from that area last year were somewhat of a revelation, but the climate here is significantly hotter and drier.
Golden Nugget, disappointing, but I’m not giving up yet! Another apple that ripened very early was the Golden Nugget. I was excited to try this one as it is a cross between Golden Russet and Cox’s Orange Pippin, two great and intensely flavored apples, and still possibly the most intense and compelling apples I’ve ever eaten. It ripened in August which seemed unusual, but I read in a forum somewhere that they can ripen very early. It was just pretty good at it’s best, which was disappointing, but then it is the first year of fruit on a two year old cordon tree, so I don’t want to judge it too hastily until the tree settles in a bit. The last Golden Nugget I ate was better than those before it, so I’m hoping that I picked it too early or that I just need to store it for a while. Then again, I didn’t pick most of them because they fell off. It does get points for early ripening and seemed promising for an early apple if it gets its act together. It is an attractive apple, but not by our warped grocery store standards.
Fiesta (aka Red Pippin), Silly name, satisfying apple. Fiesta is a newer apple as you can tell by the silly name. It is a cross between Cox’s Orange Pippin and Idared. It is earlier than Cox’s here. I don’t have full notes on the season, but I have down that it was very tasty on Sept 15th. The apples are on the large side, broadly conical and attractive. The acid/sugar balance is good to my taste. Flavors are “red apple”, maybe some green apple and some almost artificial fruit flavors which are not uncommon in good apples. I don’t mean artificial in a bad way, but that is the description often evoked. Fiesta is juicy, nicely textured when in prime condition and easy to eat. It has a good balance between keeping your attention while not demanding it or being overwhelmingly intense. I like overwhelmingly intense apples, but I also like to just chill out and eat an apple sometimes without having to pay too much attention. Fiesta is a good fruit for casual eating while still remaining quite interesting if you want to pay more attention. I’m going to slap a label of very promising on Fiesta and look forward to eating more next year.
Cherry cox, better than old Cox. Cherry Cox were eaten through much of September and in storage well into October. The fruit have to be harvested over a long period as they become ripe. This variety has been a real performer here and has bested the famous old variety Cox’s Orange Pippin which spawned it. It watercored the first year or two, but has settled in and had no watercore at all this season. Watercore is a physiological phenomenon where some of the flesh and core of the apple becomes saturated looking and generally sweeter. Some people like it. I’m not so keen on watercored apples, and the fruit will not keep. We ate the last Cherry Cox out of the fridge on Oct 17th and it was still pretty good. Cherry Cox is a nice looking sport of Cox’s Orange Pippin (sport meaning it is a mutation of a single bud on a tree which grew into a new variety). It is green fading to yellowish with often dramatically broad red stripes. It is reportedly more disease resistant and longer storing than Cox’s Orange Pippin with a taste of cherry. The Cherry flavor is mild in some and strong in others. It’s something like a cherry cough drop, but in a good way. It is on the tart side with rich fruit flavors… strong, but not usually intense. It is a refreshing apple, lively with acidity while still being plenty sweet, and is good for eating out of hand. I did notice that it was sometimes hard to figure out when to pick and eat it at just the right stage. It can get a little bit mealy or granular if it is very ripe, but it can taste a little sharp and raw if too green. The window between seems small and it is difficult to know when to pick since it ripens over a period of weeks. Still, that analysis aside, we ate them and ate them some more, in and on both sides of that window, and would eat yet more if we had them. Because of for flavor as well as our overall desire to eat them in quantity, Cherry Cox seems like a keeper here at Turkeysong . Add high productivity and precociousness into that equation and it’s a real winner. It isn’t the best apple ever, but it has a lot going for it.
Cox’s Orange Pippin, nothing to write home about :( I had one of these off my mom’s tree a couple years ago that really knocked my socks off. I was hopeful after that, but it has disappointed here consistently. I think good years for Cox’s would be few and far between in our climate and we are probably better off pursing other apples including some of Cox’s many offspring, a number of which are reviewed on this page and excellent in quality.
Sweet Sixteen, flavor you couldn’t ignore if you wanted to. Sweet Sixteen is another early to mid September apple. It was finished harvesting by the end of Sept and that was probably a bit late. Sweet Sixteen is from the University of Minnesota breeding program and was released in 1977. It is a nice looking red apple that is intensely aromatic and flavorful. You can smell a good example from several feet away. Apples boast a large palate of flavors and Sweet Sixteen showcases that fact. Early, somewhat unripe, specimens were so intensely flavored of bubblegum and cherry candy, that they were a bit much, especially lacking the sugar and acid to balance the flavor. Later specimens yielded a somewhat more harmonious and less gimicky flavor with notes of artificial cherry, bubblegum, anise, almond and “red apple”. These flavors are generally not subtle, but are rather right up in your face. It will probably be a bit much for conservative palates causing some upturning of noses, nose wrinkling, grimacing and other signs of disapproval. On the other hand, it must be awesome for kids and certainly for the more adventurous grown ups among us. If apples have to compete with the candy isle, which it could be argued that they do if we want kids to eat them in this age of foods engineered to make us want more, then this is a step in that direction. we’ll be hanging onto sweet sixteen and probably adding a tree. The birds also like it!
Freyburg, Anise and banana flavored, gourmet Chicken food. Although it did taste of anise as advertised, and sometimes strongly, Freyburg is sweet with little acidity. Chuck likes it for that reason though, and other sweet apple lovers might as well. It can taste anywhere from mildly to intensely anise flavored. Other flavors are banana, perfume or maybe flowers, and pear. It has brilliantly white flesh and a sort of creamy flavor and interesting fine texture. As far as I’m concerned this one is out of the running. If you like sweet apples, it’s probably a good if not very good apple, but for me the total of the flavors and sugar acid balance is curious, but not compelling. Most were picked too early, the last one picked on Oct 22nd seemed like it was probably in just about prime condition. I said Wow when I bit into it because the anise flavor was so strong… but the chickens finished it.
Egremont Russet, a solid old school English Russet. This is a famous English russet with a rough, pretty thick and fairly astringent skin. My notes say it seemed prime on September 22nd, but it ripens over a long season with the last few hanging on till mid October. Egremont was popular with farmer’s market customers who probably would not have given it a second glance if it hadn’t been for the tasters we handed out. Most of the people who tasted it bought a few. It is very sweet as many russets are. The texture is dense, but I wouldn’t say dry or rubbery as some russets tend to be. The flavor is rich and dense, but not particularly complex or “wow”. It is sufficiently acidic to be lively in the mouth and the peel is fairly astringent. Egremont seems to be keeping well in the fridge. The flavor and texture of the refrigerated apples a month after picking is very good and hardly changed. The most interesting thing is that the stored specimens don’t taste like refrigerator. Many apples can go into the fridge for only a week or two and come out tasting like a not so delicate blend of everything in there which is a real buzzkill. The tree is somewhat prone to early drops and ripens over a long season. I noticed that the birds pecked at them but didn’t care to eat them, probably because of the dense flesh, so damage remained minimal. I think we might keep the Egremont, but I hope to compare it to some other russets in the next few years. My experience indicates that the Golden Russet definitely trumps the Egremont as it is grown here. I haven’t had any significant quantity of Golden Russets on my trees yet, (blame the packrats who ate one tree down to nubs to build a nest), so I can’t compare site grown apples. Egremont is also alleged to make very good cider which is a bonus.
Rubinette, more please! A cross between Cox’s Orange Pippin and Golden Delicious. It’s hard to find a bad word said about this apple in terms of flavor. We have been very impressed with some of our 10 or so specimens this year. It is richly flavored, balanced and fairly complex. All in all Rubinette is a harmonious eating experience, and that is the take home message for this apple. It hangs on the tree well, but has to be picked before it over ripens. The apples are small and the tree is said to be small and a weak grower. The apples were very nice looking and variable in size from medium-small to smaller. I have only one branch, but am inclined to graft a tree after tasting this years samples.
Chestnut Crab, Delicious and brightly flavored, followed by a hint of rotten nuts and seafood. I was excited to try this variety bred at the University of Minnesota in the 1940s. It grew rather large for us on a two year old oblique cordon and is more like a small apple. It is a gorgeous apple with flushes and blushes and light russeting over a translucent background. The flavor was encouraging early in the season, lively and rich with plenty of sweetness. The word that came to both tonia and I was bright. I’d like to live with a larger quantity for a while, but I’m pretty sure I could stuff a lot of them down my face… later they were maybe not so good. After just a week or two of refrigeration they developed a taste which is referred to as nutty elsewhere… thus the name of the apple. I would characterize it as odd, more like somewhat rotten nuts and maybe with a hint of seafood. I didn’t care for that flavor much, though It was still really good with cheese. Other people who tasted it responded more favorably, but mostly not. That tasting was on Sept 22nd, so it was probably good for eating to my tastes (pre nut) in early to mid September.
Ribston Pippin, probably not. I may not have picked it at the right time, but this famous apple was somewhat disappointing. I had one late specimen ripened longer on the tree than the rest that was promising, but not great. I’ll give it more of a chance, but I have a feeling that we will not experience the coalescing of attributes that havemade this apple famous when grown in Britain.
Kidd’s Orange Red, I like the orange, but not the red, next please. Kidd’s Orange Red has a great reputation. It is a cross between Red Delicious, the apple that nearly ruined America’s taste for apples, and Cox’s Orange Pippin the darling of Britain and probably the most lauded apple ever in terms of dessert quality. Kidd’s seems to be pretty popular with apple enthusiasts. I have had the occasional specimen that made me think I should grow more, but in general I’m not that impressed. Kidd’s Orange can be intense and has some very good Cox like flavors at times, but sitting right next to those flavors is the “red apple” flavor of Red Delicious. Some people love that flavor and if you are one of them, Kidd’s is probably worth a try. I find that flavor unharmonious and distracting in this apple, even if I’m partial to it in some other apples. At this point I’m ready to throw in the towel. I’ve had it for a few years and it gets demerits for inconsistency in quality and not suiting my taste.
Not Laxton’s Fortune, but hella good! It typically takes a few years for an apple to fruit from the graft. The first order of business when they do is to note whether they appear to be what they are labeled as. Unfortunately mislabeling is common for whatever reasons. The branch labeled as Laxton’s fortune on Frankentree does not appear to be that at all. It is a shiny, red, blocky apple which looks like more of a modern creation. It tastes like a new creation as well. In fact, it tastes very much like Sweet Sixteen which it also resembles although I have no Sweet Sixteen left for direct comparison. If the seasons weren’t nearly a month and more apart, I would suspect it might be that variety. Anyway, whatever it is, it’s good! It has a very similar flavor profile and texture to Sweet Sixteen, intense almost artificial flavors of candy and cherry flavoring along with a good dose of red apple flavor. Think jolly rancher candy… which one? Maybe a bunch of them mixed together. we’ve only eaten a couple this year, but last year it was a hit as well. It is just ripe now in the third week of October, so I may revisit this one in a later post after I’ve eaten them all! The apples in the picture have writing on them because they are part of a breeding effort.
“…long keeping apple with a WOW! flavour of tropical fruits and concentrated sunshine. The first time we tasted this apple I ate 5 or 6 non stop until my guts were bursting, it tasted that good. Pineapples, mangos and melons were noticeable among the rich mix of exotic fruit flavours in this delightful fruit.” “Possibly the most underrated apple in England. Today (9th July 2004) Julia and I shared the last apple from the 2003 season-it was a Suntan and it was STILL CRUNCHY and full of flavour.”
My apple guru Freddy Menge also recommended it from his short must-have list. I’m intrigued by our suntan, but not wowed for sure. Part of the reason is that they have watercored very badly the last two years usually fermenting on the tree in the hot sun… sunburn more like. This year a few did not watercore badly, but most did. I’m hoping that the watercore will go away as the tree matures as it has on some other varieties here. The fruit can still be enjoyable to eat and even really good, but good specimens are only occasional and they still taste like they are not up to par. There is a definite flavor of pineapple, which seems to be somewhat intensified by the watercore at times. Texture is often poor. I remember hitting some fractured rock when digging the hole for this tree, so I think it is not in a prime spot. It seems to be lacking in vigor which is not supposed to be characteristic of this variety. I’m not going to give up on Suntan too easily. I’m determined to grow it to perfection here if that is possible.
King David, outstanding and here to stay. This apple is very recommended by local growers and was on several must have lists. It is a Southern apple that resists heat, making it useful for interior California. King Davids the past few weeks have been a wonder of Acidity, flavor and sugar packed in a gorgeous remarkably dark red skin that takes a high polish. Mine are dry farmed for the most part, so they are extra intense. There is a high degree of acidity, but it is balanced with an equally high, if not higher level of sugar. Late in the season, the sugars really pour on making it a great apple for hard cider too (higher sugar levels equal higher alcohol levels and apples tend to be low in sugar compared to the grapes used in wine making). Another feature that contributes to King David’s usefulness as a cider apple is a good measure of astringency in the skin due to tannins. Again, this character is exaggerated in mine because they are dry farmed, but astringency of the skin is a good character in a dessert apple. The somewhat strong astringency of King David is appropriate to the intensity of the sugar, refreshing acidity and the saturation of flavor in the apple. I have had Excellent cider made from King David Blended with a Bittersweet apple called Muscat de Bernay and vinted by my friend Tim Bray. It was an excellent fruity, crisp and lively cider. King David is his favorite cider apple. The Flavor of King David has a good dose of what I always refer to as “red apple”, but of a broader richness and complexity than other apples dominated by this flavor. It is also suffused with a subtle spiciness. It reminds me of spiced apple juice or mulled cider. Red Apple isn’t always my favorite flavor, but King David’s mix of flavors makes it delicious and compelling. It is supposed to be a great keeper, but my storage conditions are not ideal, so we will be eating most of the ones we didn’t sell at the Farmer’s Market. As Tim Bray says, “More King David!”.
I am unimpressed by: Pinata (pinova), Cameo, Cranberry pippin, numerous unlabeled or wrongly labeled apples and probably others I’m forgetting about. Some varieties that fruited this year are clearly too young or too few to make a good assessment, so I’ll wait for another year to speak to those. I hope to post about some late and very late season apples in a future post this winter. (EDIT: I revisited pinata when a late specimen fall off the tree and was half eaten by chickens. I had been tasting it for months as they apples held steadfastly to the tree, but they never seemed to change much at all. That final specimen however had a whole bunch of neat flavors, so it gets a stay of execution for now.)