The last two weeks of August and the first two of September are, in my opinion, the most interesting time to be at the cottage in Ontario. The lake is at its warmest, the mosquitoes have gone, the nights are cool enough to actually sleep and hot days are now a welcome surprise. Best of all, my favourite wild produce is finally ripe enough to eat.
Picking apples in an orchard sounds like fun–I’ve never done it–but not really that much different than visiting a farmers’ market. The fruit is fresher and you’re outside but where is the challenge? The varieties are known and more often than not the apples are sprayed with something and grow on dwarf trees that are pruned to make the apples as accessible as possible. Consider this Sunday afternoon in contrast: I was out walking on an ATV trail that cuts through the middle of a pasture that hasn’t seen a cow in fifty years. No buildings, power lines, or roads in sight I was surrounded by nothing but grass, wildflowers, and the occasional clump of trees. Walking on this track–to my chagrin google maps has somehow managed to detect it and marked it as a road–one gets to a point where the view is dominated by a haphazard-looking oak tree surrounded by a clump of smaller trees and assorted bushes. Every time I walk this track my attention is always diverted by the oak tree’s peculiar shape–it has probably lost a major branch or two on the track-side –for long enough that its neighbours remain unnoticed until I’m almost right on top of them. At this time of year one of these trees has vibrant spots of red interspersed amongst its coat of green leaves. An apple tree, of course.
The story behind this tree is a bit of a mystery to me. The field was probably cleared for pasture sometime between 1850 and 1900 and used to graze sheep and cattle until about 1950. The relative size of the apple tree and its neighbour the misshapen oak lead me to believe that it was planted in the shade of the oak while there were still livestock wandering in the field. This almost definitely wasn’t part of a larger orchard–there are a few other apple trees in this and the next field over but they’re no more dense than a tree for every three acres. If we want to conjure the pleasant image of a farmer taking a break from the midday sun in the shade of an oak tree for a lunch that draws to a conclusion when he casually discards an apple core that will grow to become this tree we have to ignore the fact that this is probably not possible.
Plant genetics is not one of my areas of expertise but my rough understanding is that because of their long history of cultivation an apple tree will not “breed true”. In other words, the tree that grows from a random apple seed will have an overwhelming likelihood to revert to the crab apple characteristics that make up the majority of its gene pool. The cultivated apple varieties, like Red Delicious, are not grown by planting a Red Delicious seed but rather by grafting a Red Delicious bud or shoot onto an existing root stock.
The question of its history aside, this tree puts out some pretty remarkable fruit. The skin has a Mcintosh-like combination of red and green but the apples are about 70% the size of a grocery store Mcintosh. The flavour is on the tart side when ripe. Most interesting is the amount of russeting that these apples get. Apparently this is an undesirable quality for modern commercial growers because it interrupts the expected colours and indicates a more complex, tart flavour that was traditionally valued more for cider apples than table apples. Typically I’m happy to find any produce that can boast an heritage or heirloom quality. Hopefully, September will bring enough sunny days that if I come back before Thanksgiving these apples will be ripe enough to be picked for a skin-on apple sauce.
We also have neighbours at the cottage who find that the wasps demolish their apples before they can come anywhere near to eating them all. Given this surplus they are kind enough to share the apples with the rest of us. Two of their trees were ready to harvest last weekend so a couple of my cousins and I gleaned a bag ful of excellent pink-hued apples.
If anyone can tell from the pictures what variety this is I’d love to know. On the skin the red parts have a definite pink tone while the green parts tend towards a bit of yellow. The flesh is bright white and crisp (closer to Granny Smith than Red Delicious). The balanced sweet-tart flavour is good for eating out of hand but these apples made an excellent apple pie that didn’t need added lemon juice. Here’s a sneak peek but I’ll have a full post later on about this skillet apple pie.