Take the homely Knobbed Russet. "It looks like a potato run over by a truck," grower Herb Teichman says. But close your eyes and bite into one, and the Knobbed Russet just might change your mind about how an apple should -- and once did -- taste: crisp, sweet, bursting with flavor.
Teichman has experienced 250 similar apple revelations, give or take a few. That represents the number of varieties of heritage apples he grows at Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm, in Eau Claire, Michigan. (Teichman, 78, says he has lost track of the exact count.)
Collecting apple varieties such as Calville Blanc, Kandil Sinap, Chenango Strawberry, and others that most people have never heard of has become a passion as well as a profitable business. "You'll make more on a bushel of unusual apples than you will on a whole truckload of another apple," Teichman says.
Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm, situated on 450 verdant acres 100 miles east of Chicago, prides itself on being a bit of a throwback in a time when most apples are bred to travel thousands of miles without bruising, and fresh fruit vies with potato chips for Americans' grocery dollars.
That's a big step down for the apple, a fruit that arrived with the colonists and for centuries was considered an essential food. At the time of the Civil War, some 800 apple varieties were commercially viable (compared with about 30 today). The look of an apple was less important than how long it would keep without spoiling. Cider ruled.
Teichman's father caught the orchard-growing bug shortly after World War I, and the family settled on elevated land close to Lake Michigan, where the fruit would be less exposed to damaging frosts. They grew apples and peaches, and, of course, Michigan's famous cherries.
By the 1960s, however, it was hard to find workers willing to pick the fruit at a price farmers could afford. The family had to find a new way to do business. "We decided we weren't going to hire so many people," Teichman says. "Instead, we'd invite people out from the city to pick their own."
In addition to selling wholesale to Whole Foods in Chicago and Detroit, Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm offers itself as a rural retreat for urban families who trek by the thousands each year to wander around the orchards, pick whatever is in season, and sit in the shade with a picnic lunch.
Not only are there numerous types of apples from which to choose (among the farm's modern varieties, Honeycrisp is the runaway favorite), but you also can rent your own tree, long-term. "We have some families renting the same tree they rented 35 years ago," Teichman says.
Teichman has turned the day-to-day orchard operations over to his son, Bill, 47. But he still leads groups of visitors on tours, ringing an antique ship's bell to shepherd guests aboard a wagon fitted with cushiony vintage theater seats.
He makes his own applesauce every week, spends winters grafting apples in his basement (one tree now bears 16 different apples), and uses vacations as an excuse to track down more rare varieties for the nursery's collection.
"It's been my ambition to keep these old varieties alive so that little Johnny can come in here on a school tour and try the same apple that George Washington would eat," he says. "Or Thomas Jefferson or even Louis XIII. Like George Washington's apple, Newtown Pippin. When I bite into one, I feel like I know George a little better."
Names aren't the only things distinctive about antique apple varieties. Their flavors and textures vary widely, from tart to sweet, crunchy to tender.
A variety that dates to 1837; originally popular in Delaware and Pennsylvania, its juicy flesh has the flavor of fresh cider.
Reine de Reinette
A French apple still used by pastry chefs in Paris.
First recorded in 1872, it has crisp, juicy, and highly aromatic flesh.
Belle de Boskoop
Brought from the Netherlands in the 1870s; coarse, creamy white flesh that cooks and stores well.
Tall and cylindrical with porcelain-like skin; juicy with excellent flavor.
A classic that originated in Connecticut around 1800. Its flesh is very juicy, crisp, tender, and sweet.
Perhaps the oldest named variety in the United States. Found in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in the early 17th century. Its greenish-yellow flesh is coarse-grained.
Also known as Sheepnose, it has dry, tender flesh and was first found in early-18th-century Connecticut.
First appeared as a sport in an orchard in West Virginia in 1912. Now it's an American favorite.
Named after the state in which it was discovered, in 1870, and the deep color of its skin. Very hard, with dense, crisp flesh. Good for storing.
The Dutch word for "heavy" gave this apple its name. It dates to at least 1817. Tough skin with juicy, fine-grained flesh.
Hoople's Antique Gold
A mutation of Golden Delicious with intense flavor.
Duchess of Oldenburg
Believed to be a grandparent of Northern Spy and McIntosh, it was known in Russia in the 17th century; crisp, tender, and juicy.
Found near the West Virginia cider mill and nursery of John "Johnny Appleseed" Chapman in 1804; crisp and tender with a spicy, sweet flavor.
A Canadian winter apple from the late 1800s with pale-yellow flesh that's sweet and buttery.
This pale and waxen Indiana native originated in 1876 and has crisp, mild flesh.
Noted as early as 1854, this large, pale fruit is tender and slightly acidic.
It is no more difficult to grow apples than garden roses, and it can be equally rewarding. Here are some basics to keep in mind:
Apple trees are classified as standard (16 feet in height or more), semidwarf (10 to 16 feet), and dwarf (6 to 10 feet) types. Standard trees are best for open fields and large spaces, semidwarf and dwarf trees for smaller gardens and orchards.
Buy trees that are at least one year old, with undamaged bark; even, uniform branching; and a strong central leader, the main, upright branch. Side branches should start 24 to 36 inches up from the base. At least two varieties are needed for good pollination and fruit set.
Plant trees in full sun; at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day is essential. Apples prefer rich, well-drained, and slightly acidic soil, with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. Cold air gathers in low spots, which can potentially damage flower buds and diminish or ruin young fruits. Crests of hills and the upward side of a landscape are better locations for trees.
Remove any turfgrasses and weeds. Plant so that the soil is level with the flaring section at the base of the trunk. Prune only dead, diseased, or damaged branches in the first year.
Text by Ed Bruske