Party-yellow paper plates top long trestle tables on four sides of a square, half of each paired set cradling whole fruits with name and reference number, the other mounded high with diced bits ready for the taking. It’s a cool, drippy day in late October, and though it isn’t crowded when I arrive, before long it’s a total mob scene. Throngs of people, all with toothpicks at the ready, have paid $5 each to sample apples they—and I, and you too, odds are—have never even heard of. Sponsored by the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, this heritage apple tasting has drawn hundreds. One of the women selling tickets hands me a clipboard and pencil and gives me the quick lay of the land, after which I join the line and get to work.
The fruit is arrayed from sweetest to most tart, and the organizers have provided checklists that follow the same order for easy note-taking. I scan the list, finding only 5 that are familiar: Honeycrisp, Newtown Pippin, Golden Delicious, Spitzenberg (reputed to be Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple), and Golden Russet. Happily, the rest are complete strangers: 66 possible new apple friends!
I skip the first dozen, since I often find sweet apples cloying and uninteresting, and wade in at number 13: Oxford Black, a sweetish, slightly tart variety found in New England since the late 1700’s. From there I pass through Kogetsu, Margil, Rubinette, and Carter’s Blue, all nice but not amazing. Next comes Katherine, crisp and tart but just a tad too bland, followed by Reinette Rouge Etoilee–a gorgeous name (“little red starry queen”) but not, alas, for me a gorgeous apple. Pinova, Macoun, and Hoover all strike me as too soft, and bland as well. Waltana, next in line at number 37, hits much closer to the mark with a good balance between tart and sweet; it’s crisp as well, which also ranks high in my book. I circle it, and add three stars.
Just downstream from me, a buzz arises over Orleans Reinette, a drab-looking little yellow fruit that’s russeted with darkish brown. I lean over and stab my toothpick at the plate, hauling in a goodly chunk of this crowd favorite, and pop it in my mouth. I have to agree, the flavor is delightful: sweet but nicely tart, a bit flowery. But the flesh is much too soft, providing no resistance to the tooth at all, so I can’t rank it highly. The grower assures me it’s due to the lateness of the season; today’s offerings are over-ripe and so not showing us their best. Two plates down, though, is another story: Allington Pippin–crisp and tart, with beautiful pale dappled skin that perfectly foretells the delicate perfume that lingers on the nose and palate. We debate its precise, elusive nature—banana? pear? pineapple? No matter: it’s another 3-star discovery. Three plates down lies Pink Parfait, one of several pink-fleshed apples on display. I love the lurid blush, so unexpected: the skin gives no hint of anything unusual beneath, and besides, who knew that apples could be pink? It’s nice and crisp, perhaps a bit too tart for me. I move on to King David, another crisp and sweet-tart winner, and circle number 49. Number 52, Wickson Crab, is petite but powerful–tart, crisp, unabashed but not astringent, pleasingly round and red with reddish stripes flushed over pale cream ground. I imagine this one as foundation for a spicy cider, or sliced atop an aged Manchego.
Farther down the final row, I find many of the offerings too tart. One exception is the most striking of them all, the vivid scarlet Rubaiyat. The slices on the plate are darker than a watermelon’s heart, but with an edge of tartness and a berry-like aroma. Other apples in the home stretch, like Court Pendu Plat–which dates back to early 17th century France, is named for its uniquely flattened base, and has beautiful shaded yellow-orange skin with a fine tracery of russeting–I want to like but can’t get past their texture.
Once the circuit is complete, I go back to the five or six I’ve starred or circled on my sheet to taste again, this time with a bit more serious intent: would I want a tree of this variety, or that one? Many in the crowd seem to have the same idea, and we’re all chatting up the growers in search of pearls about climate, productivity, and ease of cultivation. Happily for me, my top four all rank as ‘easy,’ and likely to find the climate in my area hospitable enough.
Stuffed with fruit, knowledge, and ideas, I turn in my clipboard and trudge back to my car through muddy grass and rough-cleared meadow. This one-sided speed-date has been informative and fun, to be sure. But do we really need 71 different kinds of apples? Or the estimated 7500 found world-wide? It’s a fair question. After all, in this globalized era, can’t we just get what we want from someplace else, wherever and whenever it’s in season? And how many distinct flavors do we need, or want–wouldn’t a dozen or so suffice? I wager most of us could name only a handful of apple varieties, and are just fine with that. Should you care if Allington Pippin disappears, or Rubaiyat, or some other apple you never even knew existed?
The answer, of course, is yes: in these times of climate change, rapid population growth, and environmental degradation, crop diversity is more vital than ever. Add in diminishing and ever more expensive fossil fuel for food production, transport, and storage, and it starts to look like a perfect storm for agriculture. The ability to adapt to drought, heat, poor soil, pests and plant diseases, low fertilizer input, and other stresses depends on genetic diversity, now more than ever–and if we don’t keep our options open, more will go hungry. Seed banks are a critical part of the solution, and perhaps you’ve heard about the “doomsday bank” in Norway, dug into a mountain at the world’s icy apex. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008 and contains over 500,000 unique seed samples. Regional seed banks around the world contribute to the SGSV, which serves as the planet’s sole backup storage facility.
Seed banks are a great resource for plant breeders and researchers, and can help ensure our long-term future. In the shorter term, it’s just as vital to save diversity in the farmer’s field–by voting with our taste buds and our wallets. Though I normally don’t care for crowds, today I’m thankful for the turnout, encouraged that so many came to see and taste these rarities and gladdened that each one found new fans. I hope some will become supporters, helping turn the tide away from uniformity and blandness. It’s not too late to save our amazing, diverse heritage of fruits and other plants, not too late at all.