I was surprised and delighted several days ago to spot one of my favorite heirloom apples occupying a spot right near today’s budding “stars” – Honey Crisp and Ambrosia (number 2 and number 1 respectively on my own best of the current list.) There in their own wooden box were two dozen Calville Blanc d’Hiver apples, a real old-timer made familiar by Claude Monet’s 1870 still life Apples and Grapes. One of France’s most beloved dessert apples dating back to the 1500s, it is making something of a comeback among New England growers.
This trend does not surprise me since more and more adventurous fruit lovers are discovering what I did 40 years ago; that some of the most tantalizing apple “masterpieces” of all time have been found hanging from the gnarled and neglected branches of old mostly-forgotten survivors in someone’s back yard, abandoned orchard or beside a country lane. I have ever since shared a love for George Washington’s Albemarle Pippin, Tom Jefferson’s Esopus Spitzenberg, or my own Dad’s Wolf River. I don’t think I will ever again taste an apple pie better than one we made from a combination of newly-picked Red Astrachans and Newtown Pippins, nor a more perfectly-balanced cider than what our handsome maple press turned out with a blend of Macs and Jonathans with a few handfuls of crabs thrown in for color and tannin.
There is a good reason why even in the early days of the 20th century no home orchard would be without a Northern Spy, a Winesap or two and at least one “Russet” and a “Pearmain” of one prefix or another. And by the way, that famous Monet painting we noted features – along with the Calville Blanc – a handful of very small yellow- green apples, each with a red patch, in the right hand corner of the still life. These are apparently another French treasure, the Api which is still with us today at this time of year as the Lady, or the Christmas Apple, available in most markets and often tied into evergreen wreaths. Its popularity dates back to Roman times.
The Calville Blanc d’Hiver, with its iconic five prominent lobes reaches back 5 centuries to Normandy. A superb cooking apple it produces a white fluffy sauce to which the author adds just a pinch of maple sugar. Al Cooper Photo
Even the notation “Roman times” fails to hint at the true antiquity of this ubiquitous fruit we so take for granted today. Given that only wild crabs grew in the New World until the Pilgrims brought seeds from Europe -- where the domestication of apples had only begun to make its mark with the few artisans who had learned the skill of grafting, where did these thousands of varieties come from? Did they have a common birth? To make it all even more remarkable a story, plant scientists have now identified 57,000 plant genomes in the domestic apple, more than any other plant species yet studied. That outdistances by 36,000 what humans have! The answers to these questions and how they have come to us reads like a sequel to Shangri La.
The cradle in which all apples entered this world and evolved millions of years ago lies in the forests of the Tian Shan, or Celestial Mountains of East Asia, where jagged 20,000-foot-high peaks separate Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan from western China. Here, where the western foothills host a temperate sub-climate protected by surrounding forests of spruce and hardwoods, nature provided the perfect “nursery” for walnuts, apricots, apples and other developing plant species. Unlike the others however, Malus domestica is able to survive wherever its seeds are “planted” without human maintenance, carrying with it the virtually unlimited genetic possibilities locked in its near-mystical reproductive capacity. The long journey from that faraway “cradle” to today’s market shelf was carried out by bears, horses and eventually the human traders traveling west along the ancient “silk road”, doing no more than eating and eliminating as they went.