Scattered throughout the West's apple country are growers who specialize in antique apples ― varieties introduced before the turn of the century. Altogether, they sell nearly 100 varieties as nursery stock.
Which are the most flavorful antiques to grow? For recommendations, we turned to four growers ― Carolyn and Terry Harrison in Healdsburg, California, and Catherine and Joe Brocard of Sweet Home, Oregon. After years in the business, all have well-honed apple-tasting skills ― although, as in the case of 'Nonesuch', they don't always agree.
The mail-order supplier listed below sells bare-root stock; place your orders this fall for delivery before spring.
Best for eating fresh
'Cox Orange Pippin' (1830). Small to medium-size green fruit has red-orange overlay. Crisp, sweet-tart flavor. Expect some apples to crack on the blossom end. Late midseason. "It would be a good pie apple for flavor, but it's small. We put lots of these in our cider." ― Catherine Brocard
'Golden Russet' (1845). Medium-size, rust-colored fruit. Late midseason. "I'd put its flavor just behind 'Ashmead's Kernel'. 'Golden Russet' is such a firm apple that it holds up too well in cooking, staying chunky even in pies. Eat it fresh." ― C. B.
'Nonesuch', or 'Hubbardston' (1830). Large, with reddish skin. Moderately firm flesh. Crisp, rich, and sweet. Midseason to late. "Not enough acid to cook with. A sweet, crisp apple that fills a gap between 'Gravenstein' and 'Spitzenburg'." ― Carolyn Harrison
'Seek-No-Further', or 'Westfield' (1796). Medium-large apple with yellow-green flesh and tough green skin. Late. "When you eat this apple fresh, its aroma flavors the fruit in the same way that the 'McIntosh' fragrance affects the taste of the flesh." ― C. B.
'Ashmead's Kernel' (1700). A late, medium-size russet with golden-brown skin and crisp, aromatic flesh. Tart but sugary flavor. "Good fresh, if you like a dense, chewy apple. Someone once told me this apple has too much taste. I'd call it a gutsy apple." ― C. H.
'McIntosh' (1870). Red skin tinged with yellow; fragrant white flesh. Fruit is medium-size, and doesn't store well. Midseason. "'McIntosh' cooks down fast into great, smooth applesauce that doesn't need a lot of sugar. But it also turns to sauce when you try to bake it into pies." ― C. B.
'Northern Spy' (1800). Large, attractive red-and-yellow fruit with thin skin and firm, tender flesh. Fruity, juicy, and tart. Use in applesauce, cider, or pie, or eat it fresh. Similar to 'Gravenstein', but ripens later. Mid- to late season. "Classic old-fashioned apple taste." ― C. H.
'Roxbury Russet' (before 1649). Medium-size apple, on the squat side. Dense, light-green fruit with a sweet, almost nutty flavor. Late midseason to late. "Not as highly fruity as 'Ashmead's Kernel'. Bears an amazingly huge crop every year. Don't pick too early or sugars won't develop." ― C. H.
'Sierra Beauty' (about 1900). Large apples with green-and-yellow skin, striped or blushed red. Juicy and crisp, with a sweet-tart flavor. A great keeper. Late. "It won't develop overlying sweetness until really ripe (it may not ripen in a cool climate)." ― C. H.
'Spitzenburg' (before 1800). Medium to large, firm fruit with red-and-yellow skin and russet dots. A shy bearer. Late. "The Gewürztraminer of apples. Its spiciness and fruitiness really come through. It's the flavor king of apples. My mother-in-law's childhood favorite." ― C. H.
'White Permain' (before 1858). Medium to large, pale green fruit with one side blushed red. Firm, crisp flesh with sweet but slightly tart flavor; pear undertones when allowed to mellow after picking. Best keeper. Late. ― C. H.
Best for cooking
'Bramley's Seedling' (1813). Large green apple, very high in vitamin C. Sharp, very acid. Early to midseason. "Not for pies; it doesn't hold its shape." ― C. H.
'Calville Blanc d'Hiver' (1598). Medium to large green fruit tinged pink and yellow. Tart flavor. Late midseason. "You'll pucker if you eat this fresh, but the fruit mellows in storage. Some overtones of pear or pineapple make it one of the best pie apples you can grow." ― C. B.
'Nonesuch', or 'Hubbardston' (1830). This antique variety was selected as both a good eating and a good cooking apple. "Not an especially pretty apple, but it cooks up well and makes fine cider." ― C. B.
'Pink Pearl' (about 1945). A firm-fleshed, pearly-skinned apple that holds its shape. Sweet-tart flavor. Use in applesauce, cider, pies. Early. "This apple has everything: good flavor and special color." ― C. H.
- "When you harvest an apple plays a big part in how it tastes," says Carolyn Harrison. To determine whether the crop is ripe enough to start picking, pluck an apple from the tree, cut it in half, and look at the seeds. If the seeds are dark, the apples should be ready to harvest (tasting always confirms it). If the weather is cool, you have a wider window for harvest ― up to two weeks for optimum flavor (but just a matter of days for early apples). If it's hot, you should harvest right away.
- Early and midseason apples generally don't keep well. Late apples are good keepers.
In California: Trees of Antiquity, 20 Wellsona Rd., Paso Robles, CA; (805) 467-9909