A few weeks ago, fighting a cold and feeling tired after an especially hectic day at work, I dragged my sorry self off to the market to pick up a few groceries and a salad for dinner (sorry to burst the bubble, but I don’t cook every night!). So, there I was picking out some fruit when out of the corner of my eye a display of familiar-looking apples caught my eye; I checked the sign and experienced a little thrill of happiness that re-energized me. They were Northern Spies, an apple I rarely see in stores these days.
Just the sight of those apples instantly transported me back to my childhood on the farm. I remember my Mom, brother and me going to an orchard on the next concession road in cold fall weather to collect Spy windfalls. They were less expensive, and thrift was a necessity in those days. We brought bushels home, and stored them in the cooler of the egg barn. Periodically throughout the winter I would help my mother sort through all the apples to cull any that were going bad. That saying about one bad apple spoiling the barrel was a reality for us. Mom and I would be shivering in our heavy cloth winter coats with quilted linings (no space-age thermal clothing then), our hands stinging from the cold. I haven’t thought about this in ages, and just seeing those Spies brought all these memories back.
I’ve been mad about apples as long as I can remember. Ever since I was a girl, I’ve taken enormous pleasure in eating them. Is there anything finer than the first bite of a really good apple? As a child, I used to read the Ramona the Pest books, and in one of them Ramona was so convinced that the first bite was best that she took one bite out of each of a whole basket of apples. I still remember that her long-suffering mother salvaged them by making applesauce. Funny, it’s been years since I’ve read that story, but the resonance of the memory speaks volumes about my fondness for apples.
I often have four to six apples a day. And when I eat an apple, I really eat an apple. That means nibbling right down to the core and biting off the sweet end with the fuzzy bit. I used to think that’s how everyone ate apples (after all, why would you leave any of it behind?) until I went to university and quickly learned that my roommate found this habit quite strange. I do try to be a little more dignified when other people are around, but restraint can be a challenge.
As I mentioned in my apple crostata post, the Culinary Enthusiast and I both love apples, although we prefer different varieties. He likes Red Delicious, Pink Crisps and Royal Galas. I tend to go for more tart varieties, like crisp Jersey Macs. Every year in August I keep an eye out for their first appearance at the market — it’s so exciting to find them after the apple-less months of the summer. Usually I can’t wait to get home, but just give one a good polishing and have that first crunchy, tart, mouthwatering bite in the car. Mmmm, only nine months to go until I get to experience this pleasure again.
But don’t think my list of favourites stops there! I also like Ida Reds, Empires, Paula Reds, Cortlands, McIntoshes and Granny Smiths (unless they have that awful waxy coating — what is that stuff, anyway?) both for eating out of hand and baking. Golden Delicious are a mellow sweet eating apple, and provide a good counterpoint in texture and sweetness in baking, Spies are great for pies (how poetic) when I can find them, but not my first choice for a snack, in part because they tend to be quite large and also because they’re not as tart as I like. I think of them as old-fashioned, unassuming and practical, a workhorse variety best suited to baking.
Please don’t ask me to declare a favourite! That would be like having to say which of my kids I love the most (all of them, of course).
When I make apple crisp, pies, crostata or applesauce I like to use a mixture of two or three varieties (sometimes even more), with variations in sweetness, tartness and texture. It all depends on what’s available, and what I’m making. For instance, I might make my apple crisp with some Paula Reds or Empires for firm texture and sweetness with tart undertones, Granny Smiths for their unrestrained tartness and keeping their shape, and some McIntoshes, especially later in the season, for a counterpoint of sweet juiciness and soft texture.
I encourage you to try as many apple varieties as you can find, especially those that are local to you. Familiarize yourself with their flavour and texture profiles, both eaten raw or cooked in a variety of dishes. They are a truly versatile fruit and a staple of the pantry from fall until late spring.
Don’t I sound like an apple booster — I should declare here that I’m not under a promotional contract for any orchard!
You can look forward to some apple recipes in future posts. I was planning to make an Apple Crisp this weekend, but a new Apple of My Eye distracted me … my new granddaughter has arrived, right when most of my favourite apples are at their prime. How sweet is that?!