It’s my opinion that temperatures in the F 90s are way more summery than is enjoyable. When I can taste the salt on my lips, it’s too warm.
However, there are some things well-suited to late summer heat, and one of them is the late summer apple.
The Gravensteins are ripe again. Since I haven’t found an Early Transparent tree for the orchard collection, these are the first to come ripe for us. Last year I wrote an encomium on the Gravenstein apple. It was the first year we’d had a real harvest off the tree, and I was thrilled with it. This year, again, we have a good yield. At least something in the garden is doing well.
Most summers we make plenty of applesauce for the larder, and a good bottling of cider as well. But this year, given the shortage of storage space in our arrangements, we thought it might be best to dry the apples. It’s been a few years since we dried some, and it’s time to renew the stock. They make good snacks and lunch fruits. They reconstitute into breakfast fruit. And, of course, into desserts. In any case, the weather right now is in perfect harmony with the Gravenstein crop, so here am I:
setting out apple slices to dry. I am somewhat surrounded by the construction site, so things are not as picturesque as they might be. But the studio, built of steel arches, is a marvelous reflector. The racks are set on the south side, and the apple slices are drying fast enough they were leathery within a couple of hours. Now, that’s solar energy at work.
So last year, my apple panegyric was on the old Gravenstein. This year I will nod to the Hewes Crab.
The Hewes crab apple
These days we have become so accustomed to the very few apple varieties that appear in the markets, only home orchardists really get to enjoy the pleasures of old, favorite apples. As with so many of our vegetables and fruits, commercial cultivation of apples demands uniformity of size, color and flavor. Besides, only apples capable of withstanding the rigors of large-scale picking and shipping operations can make it into the mainstream of grocery marketing. As a result, so many classic flavors have been lost to the common palate that few folks these days realize the value of, for instance, a crab apple.
Note well: a crab apple is not the same as a crabbed apple. Merriam-Webster would have us know the verb, to crab, this way:
- Main Entry: 5crab
- Function: verb
- Inflected Form(s): crabbed; crab·bing
- Etymology: Middle English crabben, probably back-formation from crabbed
- Date: 1662
transitive verb 1 : to make sullen : sour <old age has crabbed his nature> 2 : to complain about peevishly 3: spoil , ruin intransitive verb : carp , grouse <always crabs about the weather>
— crab·ber noun
As applied to an apple, that would be one of those small, puckery apples from an old tree aging into retirement.
A crab apple, on the other hand, is a small, strongly-flavored apple, tart, sweet, tannic, usually intended for cooking, pickling, or, best of all, cidering.
Back When… that is, back when European folks were first putting down roots on this continent, the greatest number of trees in a New World orchard were grown from seed, not from graft as is more common today. Apple seedlings (or pippins) are notoriously variable. When you grow a new tree from a graft, by taking a cutting of the old tree and placing it into the wood of the new rootstock, you get a new tree above the graft that is just like the old one. It is genetically the same tree. It’s, if you like, a clone of the old one. More on the value and mystery of that in a minute. When, however, you grow an apple tree from the seeds of the fruit, you get all kinds of results. Some are good. Some are not so good. They vary from their parent in size, texture, scent, shape, flavor, fruit color, hardness, keepability, cookability, disease resistance, and vigor. Seedling orchards are the source of all the apple varieties we might treasure today, varieties with outstanding names like Ashmead’s Kernal, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Kentucky Limbertwig, Bloody Ploughman, Burr Knot, and Foxwhelp. But few of those make it into the Safeway franchise, and today can be found only in backyards and small collections.
Henry Thoreau mourned the loss of seedling cider orchards and expressed his taste for apples “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.” He thought little of the “selected lists of pomological gentlemen” whose “‘Favorites’ and ‘Nonsuches’ and ‘Seek-no-farthers’ commonly turn out very tame and forgettable. They are eaten with comparatively little zest, and have no real tang nor smack to them.“
Yeah. That’s where I am.
But to get back to Back When, the apple back then was most likely to be used in cider. Certainly it was eaten as whole or cooked fruit, but its usual destination was the cider glass. And I do not mean, when I say this, a beverage like that jug of apple juice on the shelf at the supermarket. I mean a cider made of all the varieties in the orchard, blended in the crusher, each cider no doubt irreproducable, each cider rich in tannins, fruit flavors, sweets and sours… and that cider mostly not taken fresh when it was most properly called juice, but let to ferment and held into the winter until it was ready to drink, all heady and fizzy and — it’ll give you a lift, a real cider will.
And this is where varieties like the little Hewes crab shine. The Hewes is an old variety, also called the Virginia crab apple, known to have been grown in the cider orchards of the colonists.
“The liquor flows from the pumice as water from a sponge,” wrote Philadelphia farmer Henry Wynkoop in 1814, of the Hewe’s crab.
When a seedling variety showed itself to hold special promise, it was grown on in the orchard through grafted trees. The little Hewes crab came to the orchard of Thomas Jefferson in this way, and he thought enough of it to keep it as a favorite in the cider orchard.
And so, in my own little orchard, there grows a Hewes crab apple that came to me as a grafted sample of the trees of Thomas Jefferson. I’m not sure how to express this, but imagine if you can that when I place my hand on the bark of my Hewes tree, it is the same tree that grew under the eyes of Thomas Jefferson. His glance might have fallen upon my tree. When I slice into one of those Hewes apples, the aroma that rises is the same one that filled the orchards of the American colonists. And when we crush our apples into golden juice and raise the glass to our lips, that mix of scents and flavors and darkening color is like, but not like — since every year’s cider is unique — that cider that calmed the thirst of those first orchardists on the North American continent.
OK — maybe that’s enough of that. I’m weary from a too-hot weekend when we moved the greenhouse out of the way of the construction site and dug up and moved plants to be saved (what unfortunate weather it is for that!), and maybe I’m overwhelmed by the possible connection to spirits (spirits of more than one kind) of another time. But it’s true, the historical continuity of the cells in a grafted plant is unarguable. Given careful husbandry, those varieties are immortal. There is no reason for us to lose them. If we value the opinions of our ancestors, there is every reason to keep them.
I give you:
the Hewes crab.