By Aleta Watson
Arkansas Black. Orleans Reinette. Newtown pippin. Esopus Spitzenberg.
Once familiar names to apple lovers, these old varieties almost disappeared from the marketplace, squeezed out by prettier fruit bred for storage and shipping. Now they’re making a comeback, thanks to farmers markets and a growing public appreciation for heirloom produce with all but forgotten flavors.
Joe Stabile knows them well. He grows more than 200 apple varieties, many of them antiques, at Hillview Farm outside of Watsonville.
Every Friday from late August to March or April, he brings nearly two dozen varieties to the farmers market at Cupertino Square shopping center, the former Vallco mall. October is the peak of his harvest.
Few of his apples are found in the average grocery store, where the shiny Red Delicious still reigns supreme even though newer hybrids such as Honeycrisp are grabbing a larger share of the market.
Most of these old varieties don’t fit the image of the iconic apple — deep red, shiny and perfectly shaped. They bruise easily or their skins are tough. They may be mottled green and red, misshapen or spotted with the dull, brown surface known as russet.
”They’re ugly. They’re not uniform,” says Stabile, ”but the taste is what’s important.”
Some specialty produce stores, such as Sigona’s in the Stanford Shopping Center, carry a small selection of antique apples. But at De Martini Orchards in Los Altos, which carries the Arkansas Black and Sierra Beauty in their seasons, the bestseller remains the sweet Fuji, a mid-20th century cross between the Red Delicious and Ralls Jeannette varieties, which was introduced in the United States in the 1980s.
”It’s not that they’re not pretty enough,” says owner Craig Kozy. ”It’s that they’re not what the public wants. They want the Fuji. They want the apple that’s sweet and crisp and consistent.”
Stabile’s regular customers at farmers markets in Cupertino, Danville and Oakland often are looking for something else. They savor the diversity of flavor and texture to be found in freshly picked apples that don’t hew to a commercial standard. Some are sweet as honey, others as multi-layered and complex as fine wine.
”We like everything,” says Jackie Funk of San Jose, who has been getting her apples from Stabile for 14 years. ”I buy whatever my kids are in the mood for. I think we’ve tried every variety.”
Other farmers also offer treasured old apples. The Newtown pippin — a crisp, usually tart green apple — is fairly easy to find. America’s first export apple in the 18th century, it’s also the fruit that established Watsonville’s Pajaro Valley as one of the state’s top apple-growing regions. It still grows in many area orchards although most of the crop goes into juice.
Still, not many growers bring the selection to market that Stabile does. Apples have been his obsession ever since he stumbled upon the farm for sale while on vacation 25 years ago. Back then, there were only 300 trees, mostly Red Delicious, Newtown pippins and Yellow Winter Banana, on the property.
”I found no one wanted them,” Stabile recalls. So he began looking for apples that would sell.
”I started shopping around and found it’s a whole new world,” he says. (Some 2,500 varieties of apples are grown in the United States and 7,500 around the globe, according to the University of Illinois Extension.)
In 1992, when he retired from IBM in San Jose, Stabile began farming full time and expanding his experimental graftings. Today, he has 7,000 trees planted on 12 acres within a couple of miles of the original 4-acre plot on Casserly Road and jokes that the orchards own him.
He tends the orchards himself, sometimes with helpers.
”I’m not organic,” he says. ”I’d like to be, but it’s just too difficult. I do minimal spraying.”
What keeps Stabile going as he nears 70 is a continuing fascination with the almost infinite variety of the familiar fruit. Ambling among the rows of trees, pocketknife in hand, he pulls apples off branches and slices up chunks for tasting.
Each has a different personality. Some are good for cooking and others are best for eating out of hand.
”Part of what I like to do is educate people about apples,” he says.
First off the trees is the Esopus Spitzenberg, reputedly a favorite of Thomas Jefferson and a juicy but firm apple with a nice balance of sugar and acid, plus a touch of spice.
”They’re unattractive, they crack, they russet,” Stabile says, ”but you make a pie out of them and you’ll know why Thomas Jefferson loved them.”
Every apple has a story. The sweet little Hudson Golden Gem, a bronze fruit, was discovered in a nursery fencerow in Oregon in the 1930s. The heavy, aromatic Swaar was found by early Dutch settlers in New York. The 19th-century Arkansas Black, named for its dark red color, is called the Halloween apple because it doesn’t get ripe until the end of October.
One of Stabile’s rarest apples is the Hauer pippin, a late-ripening hybrid created in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late 19th century by Pete Hauer, who called it Moonglow. Stabile took cuttings from old trees in nearby hills and propagated them in his orchard. It’s a beautiful apple with skin that runs from green to red and is dotted with tiny, white spots. His guess is it’s a cross between a Black Twig and Cox’s Orange pippin.
”I love it because it’s a local apple,” he says. ”It’s got stars all over — you can identify it anywhere.”
This simple little tartlet depends on high-quality apples for its flavor. Although the recipe is for only one serving, it’s easily multiplied for as many tartlets as you wish.
PARISIAN APPLE TARTLET
1 4-inch circle cold puff pastry (preferably all-butter), rolled 1/8-inch thick
1/2 firm sweet apple, such as a Golden Delicious or Fuji, peeled and cored
Light brown sugar
1 teaspoon cold butter, cut into 3 pieces
Center a rack in oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone mat and put pastry circle on the sheet. Cut apple half into 4 chunks and center chunks on pastry circle. Sprinkle apple with 1 to 2 teaspoons brown sugar — depending on how much sweetness you want — and dot with the bits of butter.
Bake about 25 minutes (time will vary depending on how your apple bakes), until pastry is deeply browned and puffed up around the apple and the apple can be easily pierced with the tip of a knife.
Transfer baking sheet to rack and let tartlet cool — it’s great just a little warm and equally good at room temperature.
Per serving: 355 calories, 4g protein, 22g fat ( 5g saturated), 37g carbohydrate, 159mg sodium, 10mg cholesterol, 2g dietary fiber.
”Baking From My Home to Yours,” by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin, 514 pp., 2006)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 cup finely ground nuts such as almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts
1 teaspoon baking powder
6 apples such as Gala or Rome Beauty, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
Confectioners sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-inch non-stick springform pan. In bowl, using electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat together the butter, granulated sugar and salt until creamy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, and continue to beat until light and fluffy. Using rubber spatula, fold in ground nuts and baking powder. Add apple slices to batter, stirring until they are evenly coated.
Pour mixture into prepared springform pan, spreading it in an even layer. If desired, use a fork to arrange top layer of apple slices in a decorative pattern. Bake until top is golden and toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 55-60 minutes. Let cake cool in pan on wire rack for 30 minutes before serving.
To serve, release sides of pan and lift off ring. Carefully slide a thin metal spatula under cake to loosen it from bottom of pan. Using spatula for support, slide cake onto serving platter. Serve cake warm or at room temperature.
Just before serving, use a fine-mesh sieve to dust the top with confectioners’ sugar, then cut the cake into wedges.
Per serving: 393 calories, 6g protein, 25g fat ( 11g saturated), 41g carbohydrate, 313mg sodium, 147mg cholesterol, 4g dietary fiber.
”Williams-Sonoma Easy Entertaining,” edited by Chuck Williams (Free Press, 144 pp., 2007)