Hunting for heirlooms

Yesterday, the Food Literacy Project and Slow Food Boston hosted David Buchanan, author of Taste, Memory, a book exploring the role of biodiversity in agriculture. After his talk, we tasted about twelve varieties of New England heirloom apples.

It’s one thing to read about them (streaky-green, mild and mellow, abundantly juiced), but it’s another thing to find them.

Hunting for heirlooms, my first stop was John Bunker, the man who’s probably Maine’s best known pomologist. He runs Out on a Limb Heritage Apple CSAThroughout the season, CSA members taste about 20 varieties of heirlooms, with  information and recipes accompanying each. (One often neglected point about heirlooms — having a wide variety of apples offers the cook precision and choice.) Bunker has even written a book about history of New England heritage apples. Since he’s up in Maine, I asked his CSA for a more local recommendation.

John Lee, general manager of Allandale Farm in Brookline, returned my heirloom request with some bad news. With a late spring frost and a bit of hail, heirlooms were scarce this season. By coincidence, though, he was going up to Gould Hill Farm, a farm in N.H. with some 80 varieties of apples, and he could bring back some good varieties.

David, driving down directly from Cider Days in Franklin County, MA, offered to bring some, too.

By the date of the event, we had a whole host of apples: Northern Spy, Golden Russet, Roxbury Russet, Esopus Spitzenburg, Nodhead, Hudston’s Gold, Gray Pearmain, Blushing Golden, Rhode Island Greening, Hampshire, & the once-ubiquitous Baldwin.

While this spectrum of colors and flavors was once the norm, 81% of apples made accessible to American market are now considered endangered. The Red Delicious occupies a full 41% of the American apple crop and eleven varieties produce 90% of all apples sold in chain grocery stores.  Unlike many endangered species, endangered heirlooms should be eaten and requested, since growers will not preserve varieties that customers will not buy.

More on heirloom apples: Slow Food’s Forgotten Fruits: Manual and Manifesto

Some local places to taste and buy heirloom apples: Old Sturbridge Village, Poverty Lane, Gould Hill, Shelburne Orchards, Out on a Limb Apple CSA, & Clarkdale Fruit.

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