The onset of my appleplexy happened in the following way. The woman, her name was Michelle, was an acquaintance of Gayle, a friend of mine at work. I had never met Michelle. Gayle, however, was spending the weekend at Michelle’s farm near Glen Huron, Ont., which is about 10 kilometres south of Georgian Bay, hence subject to the allegedly moderating climatological influence of the Great Lakes. In other words, it’s smack in the middle of one of Ontario’s apple belts. Michelle had a small orchard: Did I, Gayle asked, want a bag of hand-picked honeycrisp apples?
Of course I did. I am a fiend for the honeycrisp, for its bracing tight and snappy appleyness, although farmers find it a pain to grow (it considers Nova Scotia the ideal climate) and harvest (you have to snip the stem as you pick it so it won’t puncture other Honeycrisps, whose skins are so thin the apple can suffer from sunburn). The Honeycrisps were on the small side, which somehow made them even more delicious. I sent Michelle a note of thanks, though I may have overdone it on the gratitude, because two days later Michelle was in the lobby in person, with another gift: 20 pounds of apples, knotted into a nylon bag. I carried it home swinging from the handlebars of my bike like the head of John the Baptist.
They were Cortlands, stout, slightly flattened ovals of reddish-orange stripes painted vertically over a light green base. Malus domestica “Cortland” is an old-fashioned pomme: This is the apple your grandmother preferred for baking, because it smells fantastic while cooking and because its flesh doesn’t darken when cut and exposed to air. But they go soft in storage almost right away. “And unless you’re 80 or 90 years old,” Charles Stevens, an apple farmer, told me, “no one likes a soft apple.” The Gala, on the other hand – born in New Zealand in the 1930s, and currently the most popular apple grown in Ontario, according to the Apple Growers of Ontario, of which Mr. Stevens is currently chairman – ”is like a McDonald burger. Every burger is exactly the same, all year long.” That is the glory and the weakness of the Gala. The Honeycrisp, Gala and Ambrosia (born in B.C. in the 1990s) are evercrisp newcomers to appledom and have doubled their share of Canadian apple production in the past decade. The Cortland’s portion, sustained slightly by baby boomer fear of temporomandibular dislocation while trying to snap a mouth divot of flesh from a hard Pink Lady, is mostly down: more than 11 million pounds were grown in Ontario in 1995. By 2005, only four million. They sell best at Thanksgiving, when people cook pies.
Let me say this about 20 pounds of apples: it’s a lot of apples, even in this, peak apple-eating season. I felt compelled to consume them. Not just because I like apples, but because I am a lapsed Anglican. It was in Northern Europe in the 1800s that the apple was first touted by Protestants as the more wholesome alternative to the grape, which was preferred by wine-sodden Catholic Papists in the south. I immediately set to cooking my way through my windfall.
I ate six of the Cortlands while they were still crisp. That was nearly four pounds. Then I spotted a recipe for “berry apple-butter pie” in The New York Times that demanded 10 (ten!) more large Cortlands, unpeeled to add natural pectin and a reddish colour to the filling. I reduced the apples for the pie filling in a pot, augmented them with blackberries and raspberries, then chilled the goop. The pie recipe called for delicate cutouts in the top crust: My cutouts were sloppy and overlarge, and I was handling the pie crust so much I figured it’d have the consistency of the straps of a pair of Birkenstocks, which I was of course wearing. I served the pie to my daughter and her friend Ali that afternoon, for Thanksgiving dinner (the cutouts were supposed to be hearts for that reason) and they liked it, which made me happy, but it was twice as good the following day, which made me question my timing. Still, as a recipe, it fell into the purgatorial mid-zone familiar to late-onset cooks: interesting, I’m glad I tried that, very tasty, but I do not have enough hours left on Earth to spend making any dish that is anything less than ambrosial.
Cortlands are ruddy and somewhat WASPy. They look as if they just spent a few hours outdoors with the grandchildren on a brisk autumn afternoon. They were developed in 1898 by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. They’re a cross – and here I warn you we’re getting into the weirdly compelling subject of apple genetics: get out now, while you still can! – of the Ben Davis (grown commercially long ago) and the McIntosh, Canada’s national apple. The McIntosh is named for John McIntosh, who in 1811 discovered some apple seedlings growing wild on a plot of land he was clearing in Eastern Ontario. He and his sons later grafted the apples of their seedlings onto a Fameuse apple (a once-dominant Quebec specialty that was nearly wiped out by scab, one of 75 diseases and insects apples are prey to). Thereupon the mighty Mac was born. The Mac quickly became the Northern Dancer of apples, sire of many champions. A 1996 study found the McIntosh was a parent in 101 of 439 cultivars selected, more than any other founding clone. McIntosh begat, among many others, the Spartan, Empire, Jonamac, and Cortland; Cortland begat Suncrisp and Starkspur and Redcort. I could go on like this for a long time. Meanwhile the Mac is still the top apple in Canada, with more than 5 million bushels sold, though the number is falling. (It gets mushy fast. Try an Empire instead.)
Of the 10,000 varieties of apple known to botanists, only about 15 are grown at large commercial scale in Canada. The suburbs have eaten multiple orchards: In 1979, nearly 25,000 acres of apples were harvested in Ontario alone, whereas only 15,000 acres are harvested today. However, thanks to modern growing techniques, it doesn’t matter, because yields have tripled.
That pick-your-own apple orchard you took your kids to on a fall Saturday so they could climb a triangular apple ladder and ride a hayrack and “experience” rural life? That bears the same relation to a modern high-yield apple operation that a Second World War pinup does to a bottle of Viagra. Modern apple orchards look similar to vineyards: Varieties are grafted onto dwarf rootstock, which then grows a column, two feet wide and no more than 10 feet high, of densely packed apples. “We’re no longer in the business of growing wood,” Stevens told me. “The yield is greater and the apple is better, because the sunlight can get straight to the apple.” The trunks are wimpy they have to be wired upright and espallied, which means a lot more can be planted. Perhaps this makes you sad: perhaps you believe trees have feelings, and that modified apple tree-vines feel like automatons on an assembly line. Too bad for you, my friend. When Stevens’s grandfather planted his first apple trees after the war, he laid out 40 trees an acre and waited 15 years before he picked an apple. Today, Stevens plants more than 1,000 trees an acre, and there are farmers who do twice that. They start picking in Year 3 and have mature growth by Year 7. Old apple trees lasted 80 years; the new ones manage 20, which is unfortunate because they cost way more to plant and tend: $30,000 an acre, on average, on land that costs another $20,000, which in turn has transformed apple growing into what it never was before, a capital-intensive industry that’s expensive to break into. Stevens has developers lined up at his door wanting his orchards for condos, but he refuses to sell. “Down the road,” he says, “we’ll need these agricultural resources.”
Dorie Greenspan’s Normandy Tart, in Baking: From My Home to Yours, inhaled another eight large apples, peeled, cored, sauced and also sliced thinly and arranged in two exacting concentric circles atop the tart. This brings me to my main complaint with apples, despite the fact that Greenspan, whom I idolize, prefers baking with apples over any other fruit. I know apples are the world’s second favourite fruit, after bananas. I know the first apple trees, 60-foot monsters, showed up in what is now Kazakhstan, on what became the Silk Road. I know the Chinese figured out grafting in the second millennium BC, that the Romans had 25 varieties, which they took to England and the pilgrims took to North America, where Johnny Appleseed then planted apple seeds so settlers could buy his apple saplings to have hard cider and applejack. (As Michael Pollan points out in The Botany of Desire, the best of his excellent books, Johnny was the bootlegging Sam Bronfman of America more than he was an early Thoreau.) I know apples have been part of Canadian history since at least the early 1600s. Still: Apples are fussy.
You have to peel them. You have to core them. You have to slice them. They demand a love of repetition, a high threshold of boredom and reserves of patience. They make a big mess in the kitchen, which, alas, is small and poorly laid out and unrenovated. Greenspan suggested boiling the chunked apples down – the Cortlands needed no sugar – without peeling them, to add a bit of colour to the sauce, as long as I had a food mill. I did not, I discovered too late, have a food mill, and ended up pushing piping hot unpeeled apple chunks through a double sieve with my finger pads. The experience was medieval. But the Cortland applesauce? Mind-blowing, milord. I covered it with plastic wrap and slipped it into the fridge to gather its flavours.
I made a shortcrust tart. I prebaked it. I filled it with applesauce.
There followed the arranging of the apple slices on top in the ancient Norman pattern, prior to baking. All French cooking is painfully ritualistic, obsessed as it is with subordinating every natural thing to the transforming power of the magnificent French mind. I personally found it almost impossible to arrange two apples worth of flat concentric slices onto the applesauce. By the time I was finished I had not so much a Normandy Tart as a Beaches of Normandy Tart.
But it was good. It was really, really good. The natural sweetness of the Cortlands, the lightness of the crust, the absence of adulteration: this was the pure, clean apple at its Calvinist best.
The tart was such a success that I stuck with Dorie Greenspan. I made her Double Apple Bundt Cake. That consumed another four apples, because the first time I made it I forgot to add the flour. I can take or leave cake, and I was starting to feel appled out, so I gave the (second) Bundt cake to my wife and a group of her friends as they left for yet another women-only weekend in the country. By then I had moved on to (also Dorie Greenspan’s) Apple-Apple Bread Pudding. The recipe took my final three Cortlands and required an excursion to the store for stale challah and apple butter, not to mention to the stovetop to make caramelized apples, a sclerotizing volume of custard and some apple jelly glaze. The entire contraption then baked in a 9-inch-by-13-inch Pyrex dish for an hour and a half. By my count, a one-inch square had 50 calories. I took three quarters of it to work and laid it out on the counter in the coffee area. (We have one of those here.) The apple bread pudding was gone in 20 minutes.
It was too custardy for my taste. I like a drier bread pudding. But that is not the point.
The point is that an unexpected gift of 20 pounds of apples is still a gift. If you pass the gift along, you also pass along the sweetness of random and unexpected generosity. I’m not being corny here: We all know this.
Sweetness, after all, is what apples are all about and why we’ve cultivated them for millennia. As Mr. Pollan notes, sugar was rare and prohibitively expensive for most of human history. Until slavery and capitalism colluded to create cane plantations, whereupon cane sugar overwhelmed the world and most of our taste buds, apples were the main source of sweetness in many people’s diets. Sweetness was “the prototype of all desire.” Which is another way of saying that the sweetness of an apple is what tricks us, by eating it, into spreading its seeds around – that old evolutionary bargain.
Frankly, I am not surprised God forbade the apple on the Tree of Knowledge to Adam and Eve (even if it was a pomegranate, as some scholars believe). Because if they eat the apple, they experience desire; and then they know what it is like to want something they do not have. Regret follows and a lot of dark human behaviour runs downhill fast from there. Eve ought to have given that apple away.
Dorie Greenspan’s Normandy Tart Applesauce
2 pounds (about 6 medium) apples, preferably red, such as Cortland, Empire or McIntosh
¼ cup water, or more
1 tablespoon (packed) light brown sugar
0-4 tablespoons sugar (optional)
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional)
If you have a food mill, don’t bother peeling and coring the apples. Just cut them into chunks and toss them into a 2- to 3-quart heavy bottomed saucepan. (The skins will give the sauce a rosier colour.) Stir in the water and brown sugar, cover the pan, and put it over medium-low heat. Don’t go far from the stove; apple sauce has a way of bubbling up. Stir the apples from time to time to keep them from scorching, and if the water is boiling away quickly, add more by driblets. When the apples are soft enough to be mashed with a spoon – 15 to 20 minutes – remove the pot from the heat. If you didn’t peel or core them, pass them through a food mill, or push them through a strainer.
If the sauce seems thin (if liquid accumulates around the edges), return the sauce to the pan and cook for a few minutes more, stirring constantly. The sauce should be thick enough to sit up in a spoon. Add sugar to taste if you want it (it usually doesn’t need it, especially for the tart). Place the sauce in a bowl, lay a sheet of plastic wrap on its surface and chill.
Reproduced from Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for Normandy Tart in Baking: From My Home to Yours, with permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.