Apple varieties that taste like pineapple or licorice? They exist

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Fruit connoisseur David Karp, a contributor to The New York Times and Saveur, sampled 44 varieties of apples. He lists his favorite varieties -- and explains why supermarket apples are often mediocre.

Q: I understand you just held an apple tasting in which you sampled 44 varieties. What were your favorites?

David Karp: Yes, I gathered 20 varieties of apples from recent trips to Minnesota, New Jersey and New York Greenmarket. I ordered two dozen varieties from Applesource, a mail-order house in Chapin, Ill., that offers both common and rare antique apples, many of which I'd never tasted before. I put on labels to identify them, and invited four friends over on Tuesday afternoon to taste apples. It was fun -- I was astounded by the range in flavors and textures.

The group favorite was the Freyberg, which was light green in color, with a distinct flavor of licorice and a complex, lingering aftertaste. My personal favorite was the Pitmaston Pineapple, an old English Russet variety, that is small with matte, brownish gold skin, dense flesh and a rich flavor that did indeed hint at pineapple. Other apples weren't quite as outstanding but were remarkable for certain features: the Pink Pearl was tart but had lovely pink flesh; the Hawaii tasted of banana; and the Esopus Spitzenburg, Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple, was dense, aromatic and spicy.

Q: Did you learn any lessons to apply to more commonly available apples?

DK: One thing we noticed was that certain representatives of famous varieties were not at their best: The highly-reputed French Calville Blanc was inedibly sour and the Cox's Orange Pippin, Britain's most celebrated apple and a past favorite of mine, was rather mealy. Even from a good variety, apples picked too early or kept too long or stored improperly can be disappointing. (This wasn't the fault of Applesource -- I asked for many classic varieties just to taste them.)

Q: Is that why so many of the apples I buy at supermarkets are mediocre?

DK: Compared to more dainty fruit such as apricots and peaches, apples don't fare that poorly in the supermarket. But there are several problems that cause a lot of lousy apples to be sold: Farmers and growers push good-looking, commercially-productive, poor-tasting varieties like the Red Delicious, the most popular apple in America. At its best it's sweet but insipid, lacking in acidity, and after a few months of storage it becomes a mealy mess that's just a boring chore to eat. Many apples, in fact, taste of storage after a few months -- you can taste the cardboard and the refrigeration compartment. Others, like the excellent and usually dependable Fuji, last well, but sometimes farmers grow bad strains, or pick them too early, so my advice is to taste one apple before buying a bushel. Even at farm stands and green markets, where I prefer to buy, an apple can be good one year and bad the next, due to weather or a poorly-timed picking.

Q: Now's the best time for apples, though, right?

DK: Yes, apples are harvested from July on, but October and November are peak apple season. As with many fruits, most of the best varieties are late in season, taking time to develop sweetness and flavor. You can't beat the crackling crunch and sparkle of a freshly-picked apple. Most apples are just about as good for a few weeks, and some, like the Calville Blanc and the Esopus Spitzenberg, actually improve after picking.

Q: What are your favorite local varieties?

DK: I live in New York (which by the way, is the second most important apple-growing state, after Washington), and I look especially for three varieties at the Greenmarket. The Golden Russet is tops -- russet apples look ugly, with tan, slightly raspy skins, but inside they're bursting with intense flavor. One of the few stands that carries them is Breezy Hill, at the end of October and November. The Winsesap and its cousin the Stayman are classic Northeastern apples, very juicy, with a powerful sweet-sour contrast, and a characteristic winy flavor. The Northern Spy is another oldie-but-goodie you rarely see in regular markets. It's large, crisp and juicy with the excellent sweet-tart flavor, and perfect for making pies.

Q: What did you discover on your recent trip to Minneapolis?

DK: I see why they call it "Many-apple-is." I tasted about half a dozen Midwestern varieties that I bought at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. The season was a bit late on account of weather, so I was a little early for some of the classic Midwestern apples. Everybody talks about the Haralson, which was rather tart when I tasted it, and very crisp. My favorite Minnesota apple was the Wealthy, also a bit tart, but with a lively flavor and sweet fragrance. Several growers mentioned the Honeycrisp, a new introduction that wasn't ready when I was there, but which I subsequently tasted from Applesource. It was incredibly crunchy crisp, with a real honey flavor.

Q: Are there any commercial varieties that appeal to you?

DK: I do like the Fuji for its sweetness, juice and fine flavor. It's fairly common these days, and a good keeper, but again, try one first. I rate the Braeburn even higher. It's from a New Zealand seedling, and looks a little like a Fuji, but with richer flavor, and a cidery perfume. If you like Macintosh, I'd recommend checking out the Macoun -- it's similarly juicy and aromatic, but with fuller flavor.

To expand your understanding and appreciation of applesSample a wide variety of apples from Applesource. Boxes range from $20 to $37 for 12 to 50 apples, depending on the selection.

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