SOME OF THE BEST New England apples from the 2015 fresh harvest are still available in stores. Cortlands and McIntosh are remarkably crisp and flavorful thanks to advances in storage. They are a little sweeter and softer than they were when fresh-picked, but they continue to provide plenty of their distinctive apple flavors.
Two late season apples that have improved in storage are Mutsu and Stayman. The ones I tried this month, from Dwight Miller Orchards in Dummerston, Vermont (purchased at River Valley Market in Northampton, Massachusetts), and Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford, Connecticut, respectively, were exceptionally crisp and juicy, fragrant, and bursting with flavor. In both cases, after buying one and biting into it, I returned for more before leaving.
The two late-season apples are dissimilar in some respects. Mutsu, also known as Crispin, is a newer, yellow apple, discovered in Mutso Province, Japan, in 1930, and released commercially in 1948. Stayman has a rich, cherry red color, and it is an heirloom, discovered by Dr. Joseph Stayman in Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1866, and released in 1875. It is the only apple of commercial significance to ever have come out of Kansas, a state better known for its vast wheat fields.
Stayman is the offspring of Winesap, a popular heirloom variety from New Jersey dating back to the 1700s, and an unknown parent (for this reason, it is sometimes called Stayman Winesap). Stayman tends to grow larger than Winesap, and its red color is less intense, with prominent white lenticels, or pores. Stayman has outstanding flavor, nicely balanced between sweet and tart, and it is recommended for all uses.
Mutsu is a large apple, and its shape is more conical than the rounder Stayman, owing to Mutsu’s Golden Delicious parent. Its other parent is Indo, a sweet apple from Japan. These two varieties have had a productive relationship: Golden Delicious and Indo are also parents to Shizuka, another outstanding late-season yellow apple. Mutsu is excellent in pies due to its large size and because it holds its shape when cooked, but it loses some flavor, so it is best mixed with Cortland, McIntosh, or other more flavorful varieties. Mutsu is also a good choice for salads, since its pale yellow flesh browns slowly.
The apple trees are just beginning to stir in New England’s orchards, and it will be weeks yet before we know much about the 2016 crop. In the meantime, there is still time to enjoy some great apples redolent of a New England fall.
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APRIL AND MAY are critical months for the apple crop. In the weeks leading up to and immediately following spring bloom — which typically peaks in New England around Mother’s Day — the emerging blossoms are vulnerable to a deep frost. Apple blossoms can withstand temperatures a little below freezing, but if it gets much colder than 28 degrees, the buds perish. The current stretch of warm weather may speed the budding process along, leaving the trees vulnerable for a longer period.
Much of the region’s peach crop was damaged due to unseasonably warm temperatures in March. The trees budded prematurely and were then lost when winter-like temperatures returned.
It is not until Memorial Day that growers feel confident that a threat of a freeze is behind them.
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THE STORAGE METHOD that results in crisp apples months after they were harvested is controlled atmosphere, or CA, storage. Apples are sealed in airtight, refrigerated warehouse rooms as soon as they are picked. The oxygen level is reduced from 21 percent to 2.5 percent, and carbon dioxide is increased, from 0.25 percent to between 2 percent and 5 percent, depending on the variety, and the humidity is increased.
These measures combine to bring ripening to a virtual halt for months until the rooms are unsealed for packing and shipping. This allows the apples to retain almost all their flavor and crispness, and it gives apple lovers the opportunity to enjoy New England apples nearly year-round.
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NEW ENGLAND APPLE ASSOCIATION Senior Writer Russell Steven Powell will give a talk titled “‘From off my Father’s tree!’ Apples of New England and the Dickinson Family Orchard,” at the Emily Dickinson Museum, 280 Main Street, Amherst, Massachusetts, this Sunday, April 24, at 10 a.m.
The presentation will put the Dickinson orchard in a historical context, including how apples were grown during the poet’s lifetime, the varieties in the Amherst orchard, and how apples were used in Emily’s poetry and in her family’s kitchen. Weather permitting, a portion of the talk will take place in the recently reinstated Dickinson orchard.
Period refreshments will be served: apple pandowdy, apple brown Betty, apple-pear cobbler, and gingerbread — one of the poet’s favorites — baked with apples.
Tickets are $10 for adults; $8 for Museum members; and $5 for students K-12. Tickets may be purchased at the door.