For many or most in the Western world, an apple means a Fuji, Red and Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, or if a shop is feeling a bit adventurous. a Gala or Pink Lady. I grew up knowing none of these. I learned my apples by when they ripened and which trees I could climb. Our first to ripen is the Duchess of Oldenburg; a small unexceptional apple that quickly went from crisp to mealy mush (not a family favorite as I’m sure you gather, and in fact we took it out this year and replaced it with a Doyenné Du Comice pear).
Next, the famous Gravenstein (from Denmark originally in the late 1790’s), our semi dwarf producing enough apples to feed a small army, but all coming in within one month, making it impossible to do much but make a flurry of pies, eat until we can’t imagine eating another apple, ever, and throwing the rest to our chickens.
The summer continues to be filled with many delicious apples, but honestly I want to save that discussion for next season :)
It’s mid-November now and the apple season is coming to a close, but some of my favorite varieties have been hanging, ready, dew drop covered for an early morning pick.
Growing up in our orchard, I took it all for granted so when I thought of writing this article, I realized I knew next to nothing of the varieties that we grow. Time to research (one of my favorite things to do, along with making lists)!
First on my list: Malus domestica ‘Rome Beauty’ the apple I always thought of as the Snow White apple: a large, round to slightly oblong, shiny, deep red skinned apple with impossibly white flesh, a fine delicate taste with a distinctly lemony tang finish. Not too sweet, very rarely mealy and not very juicy, it’s sometimes not considered a great eating apple, but it’s for these reasons I love it so.
The Rome Beauty is known as one of the best apples for baking as its flavors come out when cooked and is able to retain its shape and consistency, making them especially great for whole baked apples. It’s also a good apple to store for some time after picking.
One of my all time favorite ways to cook apples is in fact not pie (shocking I know) but in an apple cake, specifically Smitten Kitchen’s ‘Mom’s Apple Cake’
If you want to put the Rome to the test as a baked apple try this lovely recipe
Originally called ‘Gillett’s Seedling’, the first history of the Rome Beauty was noted in 1817 when Joel Gillett got the tree in a shipment of apple seedlings for his property in Ohio. Noticing that it was a different variety from the rest, Joel gave the tree to his 14-year-old son, who planted it on the banks of the Ohio river. Years later, Joel’s cousin Horatio Gillett noticed a shoot coming from below the graft line (usually pruned and discarded) producing large, red, shinny apples. He started taking cuttings of the tree and selling them as ‘Gillett’s Seedling’ in the small nursery he opened.
The original apple tree itself was renamed in 1832 in honor of the town, Rome Township, and lived until the 1850’s when it fell into the river due to erosion.
Grown in many parts of California because of it’s low chill requirements and resistance to certain diseases, with a later bloom, makes it a great tree if you’re in an area with late frosts. It is also a self-pollinator.
In our orchard it starts harvesting in September, goes through October and well into November.
These days it can be found in some markets and definitely at a farmers market under the names Rome, Rome Beauty or Red Rome.
My second apple the Winesap, is an old American heirloom, parent to a variety of strains including the Arkansas Black and the Stayman Winesap.
The history of the Winesap is murky, some accounts saying it dates back to the 1700’s (or before), but more is known about this variety starting in the mid 1800’s, others saying there is little if nothing known before 1917 where it was found in New Jersey.
I was able to find an account from The Heirloom Orchardist saying ‘Winesap (Wine Sap) is one of the oldest apples grown in North America (and at one time one of the most popular). It dates back to the colonial era… John J. Thomas said in my 1849 issue of "The American Fruit Culturist" that it’s one of the best apples for baking.’
Some say the Winesap and the Stayman Winesap are one and the same, named for the developer Joseph Stayman in 1866, while others say the Stayman Winesap is a descendent of the original Winesap.
Also a late bloomer and fruiter, the Winesap is one of not too many apples that has pink to red blossoms instead of white.
The fruit, starting to ripen mid September and continuing through the end of October, is a round, medium orb with a green under color covered in pink to red striping. Some of our apples have a bit of russet on the base and top.
The flesh is a lovely creamy pale yellow, dense and very juicy, tart with a distinct spicy note, which helped give its name.
It is not a self-pollinator, so you’ll need one of the recommended pollinating varieties such as Red or Golden Delicious, Fuji, Gala or Liberty.
An excellent storage apple, great for baking, canning, cider and especially eating fresh, the Winesap has the most distinctly ‘old fashioned’ flavor.
The tree is a slow glower, staying smaller than most if it’s neighbors, with a lovely easy to prune shape. Not one to send out thousands of water shoots, but quick to cover itself with fruiting spurs.
Third and maybe the most well known is the Arkansas Black, thought to be a seedling of the Winesap. Ironically, this apple is in fact known as the Snow White apple (not the Rome Beauty).
Again, there are two versions of its history. The first is that a man named Earl Holt, a son of an early settler in Arkansas owned the first commercial nursery and it was his brother De Kalb Holt who originated the Arkansas Black.
The second, according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture is that the Arkansas Black was first produced in the orchard of a Mr. Brathwaite.
Either way it was a main constituent of the commercial apple industry of the time. By 1907 there were over 4,000,000 apple trees in just two counties within Arkansas. In 1919 Arkansas produced over 5.5 million bushels of apples. Apples were booming and continued to, until 1920 when the codling moth infestation paired with stricter FDA regulations (due to the spraying for the codling moth) made growing apples more expensive, then a drought of several years strained the apple economy to the point of breaking, but it was the Depression of the 1930’s that finalized that downfall of the industry. The apple economy never recovered.
Today the Arkansas Black makes up 3% - 5% of the state’s total apple crop.
The fruit itself got its name from the wonderfully deep dark red color sometimes verging on black. A medium sized, round fruit with slightly tougher waxy skin yields to dense, fine-grained creamy yellow, wonderfully aromatic, juicy flesh. The stem cavity is on the smaller side, and sometimes russeted.
They are known to keep for a solid 3 months or longer when kept in a very cool dark well-ventilated area, without getting mealy. The longer they sit, the darker their skin gets until full red/black and the flavor mellows, losing some of their tartness, going towards a sweeter finish with hints of nutmeg.
A versatile apple, to be used in pies, canned, sauced, eaten fresh, juiced, made into hard ciders, or as Chef Diep Tran from LA Weekly suggests, treated like a Southeast Asian fruit: cover a slice with salt and Thai chili.
For Chef Diep Tran's Arkansas Black apple pie recipes check out -
Tonight I made a Butternut Squash with Arkansas Black Apples, Cream Fresh Marjoram, Thyme, and Sage soup with some of the absolute last Arkansas Black apples. I was thrilled to find this recipe, as I wanted a savory dish. It’s incredibly simple and perfect for a rainy day like today, the blog A Little Zaftig is beautiful. http://alittlezaftig.com/?p=1112
How fortunate I am to have grown up with these exceptional heirlooms. Each season I take a bite of apple that’s a part of our history, as a country and a people.