Tasting Apples

Fall 2003

Sharon Tisher
Sharon Tisher of MOFGA’s board of directors and Russ Libby, MOFGA’s executive director, tasted apple samples that John Bunker provided at a MOFGA retreat last fall. Their ratings were combined with those of others to help Bunker identify some of the tastiest apples that grow in Maine. English photos.
Russell Libby

By John Bunker

As coordinator of Fedco’s nursery sales, I am regularly asked many unanswerable questions, such as, “What is your favorite apple?” Or, “What apples should I grow in my yard?” Of the several thousand varieties out there today, I confess that I have tasted only a few hundred at best, and I’m fairly sure my taste buds are different from yours. Still my strategy has been to continue to taste varieties “out of hand” (fresh) and to cook with them whenever I get the chance. Then I try to describe in writing what I taste. I also try to get others involved whenever possible. Your best chance of answering what I can’t answer is to eat lots of apples yourself!

Six Apple Tastings

From September 2002 to January 2003, I organized six apple tastings around New England. I limited these events to dessert apples (varieties suited to fresh eating) that were in their prime. Although some of these selections are also good for cooking, drying or cider, my focus was eating out of hand.

The contestants changed as the season progressed, since early varieties would have been soft or even rotten by the last tasting in January. Conversely, the late varieties would have been hard and sour in September. Note that all of the winners were also the most highly flavored varieties – not necessarily the sweetest or most tart, but those with the most flavor. Perhaps they won because even a small piece of any of them is memorable. Perhaps they won because of my own infectious enthusiasm. (I hope not.) I’d like to think it was because they do taste really good.

Would I recommend these taste test winners? I happen to like all five first-place winners a great deal. They would be good choices for a home orchard if high flavor is a priority. However, if we were looking for the best culinary varieties, or the best cider apples, or keepers or all-purpose apples, the winners might have been quite different.

Where can you purchase the fruit or trees from these apples? Fedco (PO Box 520, Waterville ME 04903) sells trees of some of them and will offer others in future catalogs. Scionwood (cuttings) for many will be available next March at MOFGA’s annual Seed Swap and Scionwood Exchange. The fruit can be hard to find. Check the orchard list at the Maine Department of Agriculture Web site (www.getrealmaine.com) for commercial orchards around the state. Some have very interesting collections. You might also consider some fruit exploration in your neighborhood. You might find something even better.

And what is my favorite apple? I have a different one every month!

September 21, 2002 –
Common Ground Country Fair, Unity, Maine

1. Canadian Strawberry – Beat some stiff competition. Always perfect at Fair time. Tart. Juicy. Keeps only about a month.

2. Chestnut – Very sweet. Too sweet for some. Small sized fruit.

3. Cox’s Orange Pippin – Considered one of the best in the world. Sweet and firm.

4. St. Edmond’s Russet – New to me. Popular in England.

October 28, 2002 –
Maine State Prison, Warren, Maine

1. King David – Intensely flavorful. You’ll wince. Pineapple, tangerine. An explosion of flavors.

2. Golden Russet – Sweet but not too much so. As good in March as it is in October.

3. Briggs Auburn – Large, green and firm. Aromatic, slightly tart.

4. King of Tompkins County – Superb fall dessert apple. Sweet and crisp.

November 2, 2002 –
The Food Project, Lincoln, Massachusetts

1. Minnesota 447 – Smells like sugar cane; tastes like molasses. Very unusual flavor. One of the parents of Sweet 16 and Keepsake.

2. Briggs’s Auburn – see above

3. Melrose – Tangy. Tart. Perfectly balanced. Mellows with age.

4. Tumanga – Cox Orange parentage. Sweet. Intense. Aromatic.

November 9, 2002 –
Great Maine Apple Day, Monmouth, Maine

1. Milo Gibson – Complex flavor. Distinctly licorice. Unusual.

2. Starkey – At its best, firm, balanced and flavorful. Prime time is New Years.

3. Hoople’s Antique Gold – Very sweet. New to me.

4. Spencer – A modern Golden Delicious x McIntosh. Crisp and sweet.

December 7, 2002 –
MOFGA Board Retreat, Walpole, Maine

1. Black Oxford – It has its own distinct, sweet flavor. All winter/spring.

2. Idared – Tart and flavorful. All-purpose. Keeps until June.

3. King David – see above

4. Briggs Auburn – see above

January 19, 2003 –
Neighborhood Gathering, Palermo, Maine

1. Black Oxford – see above

2. Starkey – see above

3. Sutton – Mango flavor, nice aftertaste. Old variety. A new favorite.

4. Golden Russet – All winter long. Even when soft, it’s good.

5. Northern Spy – Deservedly famous for its flavor and texture.

And More

A few other relatively unknown dessert apples worth mentioning:

Ashmead’s Kernal – Winter. Highly flavored, intense, sharp and sweet.

Garden Royal – Late summer. Sweet but not too sweet. Nearly perfect.

Gray Pearmain – Fall. Mild but flavorful.

Newtown Spitzenburg – Fall. A really good charge of flavor.

Opalescent – Fall. A very nice fall eating apple.

Sweet Sixteen – Fall. Absolutely unique, cherry, bourbon, vanilla flavored.

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