As summer ripens into autumn, so do the fruits of the season. Berries are laid by, except for elderberries (not to be confused with pokeberries), which line the fields and roadsides, and are just now showing their lush purple roundness and crying to be turned into jam or elderberry wine. But the real star is the ubiquitous apple. And of all the apples available at local markets, heirloom varieties can offer us the most intriguing surprises.
What makes something an heirloom? And how did the term come to be applied to apples, tomatoes or any other ingredient that may grace our plates?
An heirloom, by definition, is a prized possession handed down through generations. Think watches or tortoiseshell hair clips, china serving platters or yellowed wedding dresses, cut glassware, silver buttons, brass candlesticks, vintage lace — anything that carries with it a feeling of history and mystery, that makes you feel special when you draw it out of its holding place.
Heirloom apples are varieties that can be traced back 50-100 years and more. Their seeds may have been carried across the water by immigrants or passed on by a father to his son on the day of his wedding. Examples include Arkansas Black, Belle de Boskoop, Blue Pearmain, Chenango Strawberry, D’Arcy Spice, Knobbed Russet and Maiden’s Blush.
In a 2014 National Public Radio story, Ezekiel Goodband, who has cultivated more than 130 varieties of heirloom apples at the historic Scott Farm in Vermont, likened the propagation of these rare and historic fruits to keeping a chain letter alive: a matter of both chance and blind devotion. Some trees produce apples with an appearance that only a mother could love. But, oh, the flavor, the juiciness, the spiciness, the crunch!
According to the N.C. Cooperative Extension, more than 60 percent of Southern Appalachia’s approximately 10,000 acres of apple production is anchored in North Carolina, the country’s seventh-largest apple producing state. Limbertwig apples have been referred to as the quintessential Southern Appalachian apple, sporting at least 45 different varieties. They are known for their distinctive flavor — acidic yet sweet. The Early Harvest, also known as the June Apple, is another distinctive heirloom, beating all other varieties as the first to grace the table each year.
Many unidentified heirlooms still linger in the fields tucked into our mountains. Often untreated, they may have an irregular appearance and exhibit signs of being visited by worms or other creatures, an indication of their deliciousness. This doesn’t make them any less desirable to humans but does make working them up into a task that takes a bit more time than most people are willing to devote to creating a dish.
This extra effort calls for team involvement. Ask your spouse, child, mother or friend, and make it a social occasion. Examine each specimen and think about how it got in your hands. Imagine the generations that have collected fruit from the same tree and what they might have confected from their harvest. Try a new spice, a new recipe, eat one raw, envision the perfect wine pairing.
Savory dishes with apples are just as appealing as desserts. Applesauce with pork chops is a classic pairing. Try roasting a whole chicken with chestnuts and apples, adorned with sage leaves. Or fry apples with liver and onions. Toss an apple into a stew, especially one made with venison. Sauté apples with spicy sausage and drizzle with sorghum molasses. Whatever you do with your bounty, share the results, make new friends.
Spicy heirloom apple crisp
A great dish to make use of those odd-shaped apples that may have had bites nibbled out by passing deer or hungry children. Use the spices in any combination you choose. The cardamom is what really sets this version apart from other crisps, crumbles and cobblers. You can add nuts, oats or dried fruit to the topping if you like, but I prefer the simple combination of butter, flour and sugar. Be inventive. Make it your own.
Generous amount of apples to fill dish of choice when cut into chunks
3 or so tablespoons flour
⅔ cup or so sugar (brown or white or mixed)
½ cup butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ – ½ teaspoon ground cardamom, or freshly crushed cardamom pods
¼ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon fresh or dried lavender flowers
Wash apples and cut out any bruised or worm-gnawed portions. Peel only if skin is tough or if apple has been treated. Core and cut into chunks, roughly ¾-inch square (unevenness adds to the charm). Butter an ovenproof dish and pour in the apples. Stir in ⅓ cup sugar, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, and all the other spices, as well as 1 tablespoon of flour. Meanwhile, melt the butter and stir into the remaining sugar, flour and cinnamon. If using a large baking dish, increase the quantities. Whisk these ingredients together rapidly with a fork, and spread over the apple mixture. Bake at 400 degrees for half an hour to 40 minutes, or until apples are tender and topping is bubbling and gently crisped. (Note: You may have to adjust the quantity of flour or add liquid to the fruit, depending on the juiciness of the apples. A pinch of sea salt in the topping is always welcome, too!)
Serve piping hot with freshly whipped cream augmented with a tablespoon of moonshine or bourbon. Accompany with a crisp local cider, a sip of the alcohol that went into the cream, a steaming cup of coffee or your favorite tea. Eat the rest — hot or cold — for breakfast or for a midnight nibble.
Chef, musician and author, Susi Gott Séguret orchestrates a variety of culinary experiences including her flagship Seasonal School of Culinary Arts, the Asheville Truffle Experience and the Appalachian Culinary Experience. For details, visit schoolofculinaryarts.org.