It’s apple harvesting season in the mountains, and Western North Carolina is fertile ground for apple diversity and tradition. In fact, 633 unique apple varieties have been documented in Southern and Central Appalachia by the Renewing America’s Food Traditions alliance, leading ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan to jokingly name the region “Apple-achia.”
Many orchard growers eventually phased out these heirlooms — antique varieties that often can’t be found in grocery stores — in the 20th century, but Molly Nicholie, director of the Local Food campaign at the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, has noticed a revival. “The local food movement has really driven demand and offered new options for markets,” she says. “Even if you don’t buy anything else local, you’ve got to try the apples here.”
Here are some thoughts on contemporary apple farming, preservation and cooking from some of Western North Carolina’s orchard growers and chefs.
Competition and tradition
When Anthony Owens of Twisted Apple Farm in Hendersonville decided to convert his family orchard to organic production in 2003, he knew it wouldn’t be easy. “It’s four times the expense of a conventional orchard to grow organically, and you have to constantly evolve and adapt because each year will be different than the next,” he says. But despite challenges early on at the orchard, which was formerly called Windy Ridge Organics, Owens has grown his operation to become one of only two commercial-scale organic apple producers on the entire East Coast — a feat he credits to “patience, not giving up and the constant emails and phone calls of support that push us to continue doing what we’re doing.”
And as competition from the West Coast can make it difficult for regional family orchards to measure up, Owens’ farm is a promising alternative for those looking to source apples that are organic as well as local. His products are available at his farm stand, local Earth Fare stores and the Hendersonville and French Broad Food Co-ops.
In addition to marketing fresh fruit, Marc N. Williams, an ethnobotanist and the executive director of Plants & Healers International, also sees opportunity for local orchard growers to connect their businesses to the public through production of ciders and ales. “There’s certainly a big tradition in this area of making hard ciders, but it’s a fraction right now of what’s represented by beer,” Williams says. “I see a lot of room for growth in that process.”
Owens has taken that opportunity. He offers a Twisted Apple Ale without any additives or food coloring and will soon debut his Gnarly Red Apple Ale. Both products, he says, were created to bridge the gap between cider drinkers and beer drinkers. “Twisted Apple has a hint of apple with just enough malt to give it a light beer finish without that heavy beer aftertaste,” he says. “The Gnarly Red has more of a caramel-raisin flavor.”
Another certified organic producer, Gary McCurry of Fox Gap Farm in Morganton, also provides his Virginia Beauty and Red Rebel heirloom varieties to Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton for inclusion in its Appalachian Apple Saison.
Cooking with heirlooms
Growing up on her family’s fourth-generation orchard, Pat Freeman, co-owner of Heirloom Apples at Freeman Orchards in Hendersonville, has a lifetime of experience cooking with and preserving apples. She now grows over 50 varieties, about half of which are heirlooms. “Some apples have been identified as cider apples for 300 years,” she says, “based on the taste and amount of juice from a bushel.” She lists “the Golden Russet, Roxbury Russet, Ida Red, and Hoovers for cider, as well as the Arkansas Black,” which, she adds “is also delicious sliced and cooked in red wine.”
The Wolf River and King Luscious heirlooms, Freeman says, work especially well for applesauces. “Wolf River cooks up like a thick custard sauce and has enough flavor that I don’t need to use sugar,” she explains. “It’s also great for pies, because it cooks drier than other apples, so the bottom crust doesn’t get soggy and can be left uncovered.”
And she hopes shoppers this season won’t rule out yellow apples, which have gotten a bad rap for being tasteless and soft after being stored too long. “When they’re kept fresh and sold picked right from the tree, the Golden Russet, Gold Rush, and Golden Delicious [varieties] are all wonderful baked or roasted and maintain that golden flavor by balancing sweet and tart.” Freeman’s apples are available Tuesdays through Sundays at her orchard, where she provides free tastings of all varieties along with the history of each heirloom.
Susan Murray, co-owner and head cook for Carolina Bed & Breakfast, has fond memories of a large McIntosh tree growing in an orchard near her childhood home in Connecticut. “Every fall, my mother would buy bushels of McIntosh apples and freeze apple pies and applesauce for later in the winter,” she recalls. “To this day, the smell of apples is one of my favorites.” Some of these apple-inspired recipes have made it into Murray’s second cookbook, Our Family Table: Recipes and Lessons from a Life Abroad, which should hit local bookstore shelves in early November.
For new apple ideas, Murray suggests opening up beyond the classic cinnamon and nutmeg flavors for apple pies to try thyme and rosemary with savory apple dishes, and playing with variety in applesauces. For a Pink Lady apple sauce, “I like to leave the peel on, wrap the apple in a cheese cloth and then soak that in the dish,” she says. “Then remove the skin, and the sauce is left with a red tinge.” Murray adds that the Pink Lady variety lends itself well to a compote — a dessert of fruit pieces in a syrup with spices and served either hot or cold.
Freeman and Murray still encourage apple lovers not to overlook classic combinations like apple slices with sharp cheddar cheese or just the fresh fruit on its own. After all, the local flavor is crisp enough to speak for itself.
For a full directory of regional orchards, including U-Pick options, farm tours and ripening schedules, visit ncapples.com.