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Apples: Fruit of Knowledge

A Maine pomologist is passionate about apples -- and preserving hundreds of heirloom varieties.
Martha Stewart Living, October 2012

A century ago, everyone knew what apples were for. And they were rarely just for eating out of hand -- especially among clever and economizing New Englanders. You could cook with them, bake them, sauce them, dry them. You could press them into cider and either boil it down to syrup or let it ferment into alcohol or vinegar. The vinegar, in turn, could be used as a food preservative, a medicinal tonic, or an all-purpose household cleaner. The scraps, peels, and cores? They were fed to the animals.

For the past 40 years, preservation pomologist John Bunker has turned four of the 100 acres of his Super Chilly Farm, in Palermo, Maine, with its more than 200 heirloom varieties, into a living, breathing (or swaying-in-the-breezing) testament to the history of apples in New England. Not only does the 62-year-old's land preserve varieties that are more than 200 years old, but Bunker also aims to revive an appetite for them with a CSA that delivers 12 pounds of unusual heirloom apples every other week to its 70 devoted shareholders. (A CSA, short for community-supported agriculture, has customers paying for a farm's produce in advance of the season, with deliveries during harvest time.) Red Delicious these apples are not; their flavors are so far from what we have come to expect from the produce aisle that they are seldom something we would just chomp into. "Our customers actually want the apples no one else has heard of," says Bunker, who, along with his wife, Cammy Watts, researches each of the biweekly offerings and includes recipes that incorporate them.

Bunker's apple season starts in February, when he drives around collecting specimens (he hangs his photocopied "Wanted, Alive" posters all over the region, seeking the oldest apples around, many of which are practically unknown). Maine lends itself nicely to his mission of tracking down and identifying these varieties: So many self-sufficient homesteads had multiple trees, he says, "and a grandmother would look out at her yard and say, 'That tree was for that dish.'" When local landowners offer their family's heritage fruit, Bunker collects a scion -- usually just a twig with a few buds -- and grafts it to one of his trees. As such, a single tree in his orchard might bear a dozen types of apples. Or, as Bunker puts it, "I'm participating in a miracle." Late spring is marked by the arrival of the interns, apple-obsessed (and profit-sharing) 20-somethings -- usually agriculture students found through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association -- who apprentice themselves to Bunker's observational and intuitive way of farming.

The season peaks from late August through October, with the CSA's brown paper bags brimming with five or six varieties every other week. Bunker is so committed to propagating an appetite for unusual apples that he often buys up crops that his fellow Maine farmers can't sell to markets or co-ops because they're considered too idiosyncratic (misshapen, complexly flavored). By including those wild cards -- as well as the recipes that use them -- in his CSA deliveries, he aims to drum up demand for his neighbors' supplies, bolstering their future livelihood.

The true culmination of Super Chilly's season, however, is the apple pie taste-off. Bunker started it about 15 years ago, with entrants hewing to rules meant to level the playing field: Each pie must use the same crust, spice mixture, half cup of sugar -- and feature just one type of apple. Last year, the baking fell to one (lucky!) intern, but the tasting is everyone's game. "If you think apple pie tastes like apple pie," Bunker says, "try eating four types side by side." So, which apple makes the best pie? Bunker can't play favorites. Just never count out an apple's ability to surprise you, he says: "An apprentice recently remarked that the farm's worst-tasting fresh apple made for the best-tasting pie."

Get John Bunker's recipes for Apple Pie and Apple Brownies.