The Joy of Tasting at the Hayloft Tent

Apple varieties displayed at the Fair. English photo
Voice your opinion about apple varieties in the Hayloft Tent at the Fair. English photo

By John Bunker

In 1993, needing something to spruce up the brand new Fedco Seeds tent at the Common Ground Country Fair, we assembled three modest displays. One featured assorted potatoes; the second, tomatoes; and the third, apples. The displays were a hit. They drew people into the tent and introduced them to varieties with which many fairgoers were unfamiliar.

The tomato and potato displays were repeated only a few times over the years, but the apple display continued to grow. It became an annual magnet for those hoping to learn about Maine apples and to identify the old trees that still dot the landscape from Kittery to Fort Kent.

Over time an increasing number of fairgoers demanded to go deeper, under the skin, into the flesh – to taste the fruit itself. So in 1998 we held the first annual apple tasting at the Fair. It was a guerrilla event. We didn’t really advertise. We had no tent. We just put a table out in the open, cut up apples and handed them out. People loved it. We began to advertise the tasting, and the crowds grew. We began to vote for a winner. We laughed and hooted and hollered and tasted and voted. Winners were ceremoniously declared and crowned, all in fun.

A few years ago the display and tasting moved to the Hayloft Tent. There you can expect to see at least 150 varieties in the apple display, most of which come under the category “Apples You’d Find in Old Maine Orchards.” The display has become the premier spot in northern Waldo County to ID apples every third weekend after Labor Day. Volunteer identifiers are on site all weekend, waiting to help.

Then on Friday and Saturday afternoon, we taste. A crew slices and dices as fast as possible while we attempt to entertain and educate about the next contestant. We all squeeze under the tent, especially during rains or to avoid the hot sun. Otherwise the crowd spills into the adjacent open space like a 1968 Grateful Dead concert. We taste, we yell out words of approval or disdain and we vote.

The tasting does have limitations. Because apples ripen progressively from early August until well into winter, we are limited to those that are perfect in late September. We also taste only fresh-eating “dessert” fruit. Pie, sauce and cider apples have to wait for another day, but that’s OK. Seeing which apples people love is endlessly interesting, as is noting that some years one variety or another excels right at that perfect moment to knock all the others off the victory stand.

Four varieties have been the biggest winners over the years: Canadian Strawberry, Chestnut, Cox’s Orange Pippin and Whitney Crab. They represent a nice cross section of the history of apples. Canadian Strawberry is a rare old Maine heirloom that Roy Slamm of Solon brought to me at the Fair in Windsor many years ago. Chestnut is a modern apple from the University of Minnesota breeding program. Whitney is a classic American heirloom crab, and Cox is the “foreigner,” one of the best-known apples in the world.

Over the years we’ve also tasted vinegars, fruit leathers, pears, plums, grapes, other fruits, sauerkrauts, herbal wines, kombucha, fermented cider and local beer. This year no alcohol will be served at the Fair, but at the Hayloft Tent we will host a two-hour discussion and panel on Sunday afternoon about the role of alcohol in the small farm economy. And of course we’ll do apple tastings. On Friday at 4 p.m. and Saturday at 3 p.m., we’ll slice them up and pass them out. You’ll get to taste, comment and vote. And one of these years before long, all of the apples at the tasting will come from the Maine Heritage Orchard, MOFGA’s premier educational preservation orchard. Stay tuned!

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