Good to the core
ROGERS MESA — The well-polished red apple, untold thousands of which have graced teachers’ desks and schoolboy lunches, is more than a symbol of temptation or high-tech.
As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “It’s remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”
This, however, isn’t a treatise on the interconnectedness of man and apple; rather, it’s a glimpse into how American tastes in apples have changed.
Steve and Becky Ela of Ela Family Farms on Rogers Mesa have devoted nearly a third of their 100-acre organic farm to growing rows of close-packed apple trees bearing fruit in various shades of red as well as russet, striped and even dappled.
You’ll find 23 varieties of apples, many of which never see a commercial grocery but instead are swept up by eager buyers at farmer’s markets across the state.
On a recent morning, Steve Ela and his hard-working crew were packing boxes of apples in a drafty processing shed stacked near to the ceiling with crates of Gala apples.
He short-stopped a passing apple, cut off a slice and handed it to a visitor.
“Taste those flavors?” he asked, munching away, his eyes closed in concentration. “Pears, bananas and a distinct apple-y flavor.”
Intrigued that apples sometimes taste like other fruit (wine drinkers know grapes don’t just taste like grapes), I asked Ela to delve deeper into the subject of flavors and characteristics of some of today’s popular apple varieties.
Soon, arrayed on the table in the Ela’s sunny kitchen, was a lineup of various-hued apples that included the familiar Gala, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp and McIntosh plus the less-familiar but no-less tasty Swiss Gourmet, Alkmene, and Karmijn de Sonna Ville.
The ensuing conversation took as many paths as did Jonathon Chapman who, better known as the 18th century pioneer nurseryman Johnny Appleseed, crossed the Midwest leaving apple trees in his wake.
“You know, most of the apples he planted weren’t meant as food, because many of those early apple varieties weren’t very good eating,” said Ela, whose broad knowledge and easy manner attracts large crowds to his popular spring farm tours. “They mostly were used to make hard cider, which not only was a way to preserve the benefits of the apples but also, I guess, helped relieve the hardship of pioneer living.”
It wasn’t until the 1890s that apples were grown primarily for eating and as American taste buds changed, so have their preference of apples.
“Gala’s misfortune was that it got too popular and a bad rap,” Ela said, cutting and handing out slices from the Gala lying nearest on the table. “When picked ripe and stored properly, and not stored too long, it’s got great flavor.”
Right off the tree, notes of pear and banana are evident, giving the apple a complexity not seen in store-bought fruit.
“See? It’s really tasty, but after it’s been refrigerated and stored for a while, it loses those volatile aromatics,” Ela said. “Sometimes you’ll pick up berry and peach flavors, but most people never get the chance to taste them at their best.”
Next was the canary-skinned Golden Delicious, sweet and intense, like raw cane sugar, “but very susceptible to bruising and that yellow skin shows every bruise,” Steve lamented.
He palmed a Swiss Gourmet, also known as the Arlet. Developed as a long-storing dessert apple, the mild flavor was balanced between sweet and tart.
“I think about the different apple flavors as a symphony, with a mix of high and low notes,” Ela said, seeking balance in his apples. “When you first bite into an apple, it’s like the first high notes that get you excited. But without the bass notes, which linger and roll, and in an apple they only come as it matures on the tree, the flavor dies.”
He said sweeter varieties such as the Gala and Golden Delicious are full of the high notes, while more-tart varieties such as the Rome and Braeburn are heavy on the bass notes.
“You never have as many tubas as you do flutes,” he said.
We nibbled on a rose-blushed Swiss Gourmet, its softer texture and mild flavor a conundrum to Ela.
“I struggle to explain the taste to my customers,” he said with a shrug. “I think it’s a sweet apple but 20 percent of my customers say it’s tart.”
The McIntosh brought wrinkles to Ela’s brow and shake of his head.
“This is one apple I really don’t like but I grow it because there’s a demand for it,” he said. “It’s popular with people from Back East, who grew up eating this apple and it reminds of them of home, like a comfort food, I suppose.”
The thick-skinned, dark-red Mcintosh grows best in a colder climate, where it reaches its peak flavor when allowed to ripen on the tree (as do all apples). It can be crisp and white-skinned, but often becomes soft and loses its unique “vinous” flavor in storage.
In contrast, the crisp and sugar-sweet Honeycrisp brought effusive praise from the Elas.
“This apple brought people back to eating apples,” Becky Ela said.
“There are so many apples in the store that don’t taste like much and people got used to that,” Steve Ela added. “When Honeycrisp came out (in the 1990s), that all changed. This apple has gotten people to taste and think about what they are tasting.”
Seductively sweet, with hints of melon, pears and citrus, and a bite-me crisp flesh, these late-ripening apples store well as long as the skin remain intact.
He sliced into an Alkmene, also called Early Windsor and one of the “heirloom” apples Ela grows
“It reminds me of those Sweet-Tart candies,” said Steve, while Becky said she noted a hint of caramel.
“People like this one, but it’s not going to the next Honeycrisp,” Steve said.
Offering so many varieties, which ripen at different times and so appear at the markets at different times, keeps the customers returning, Becky said.
“Without the breadth of the apples, people wouldn’t come back each week,” she said. “Now, when they come to the market, it’s like, ‘What new apples do you have for me this week?’”
As a treat, Steve shared bites of an Ashmead’s Kernel, another heirloom and “what apples were like 300 years ago,” he said. “Long on flavor, short on shine.”
First noted in the 1700s and one of the few Old World apples that succeeds in the New, this is a lumpy, small, russet-colored apple with a distinctive, captivating flavor with faint hints of pears and lemon-drops.
Best of all, this apple also makes great cider, something that would please even Johnny Appleseed.