Friday, February 3, 2017

Stellar notes

Have you noticed the absence of apples in the night sky? Apples feature prominently in classical mythology. Meanwhile, we have constellations to things like The Fly.

Enlightenment thinkers esteemed the pomacious fruit but neglected to place any in the heavens, meanwhile frescoing the southern sky with The Clock and The Chisel and The Compass Case, for goodness sakes.

Snakes and birds galore.
Well, this post is not about any of that. Rather it is my annual rating of the apples I've tasted for the first time, using a Michelin-esque three-star scale.

Luck, travel, and the generosity of readers brought me 20 new varieties last year. Here's what I think of them and why.

First, though, it is my sad duty to strip Lodi of its single star.

I am sure I will still eat this super early apple in July. Lodi is often the first and only apple at farmer's market. But I've grown convinced that Lodi's place on the calendar this variety's chief virtue.

Qualitatively, Lodi is always either too early or past its prime. The sweet spot seems never to materialize.

One star denotes an apple that is "very good, worth choosing." I award that honor to tasty Cripps Red, full-flavorwd Divine, and distinctively Asian Shinsei.

A Midwest trio also earns a star each: Regent for its crunch and "well balanced bundle of fruity flavors," Bonnie Best for her balance and tang, and historically important Malinda for her perfect balance and fine rich flavor.

Heck, Haralsen makes it a quartet; it's easy to see what made this UMinn. variety a hit decades before Honeycrisp.

One star also to crunchy newcomer Pazazz, a better-balanced take on the Honeycrisp paradigm.

Every year it gets harder to find new varieties to taste and write about. A side effect is that those apples are often way past peak when I manage to find them.

That was certainly true this year. I hope someday to find a really good Chanticleer or Ariane to see if, as I suspect, these popular French varieties deserve a star or two. I revise based on experience.

On that score, I am pleased to elevate Pristine, a lovely summer variety, from one to two stars. This bright and sophisticated apple would be worth seeking any time of the year.

As I explain elsewhere, I like most apples and am generous with the one-star rating. But it's harder to earn two, which signify an apple that is "excellent, worth seeking."

Please recognize the following four new two-star varieties: Celestia, Winecrisp, Canadian Strawberry, and Decio.
  • Celestia is an old-fashioned apple of quality. She does not provide explosive crunch or mounds of sugar, but her decorous flavors are varied and rewarding.
  • Modern Winecrisp, by contrast, has a hefty crunch and bears rich and distinctive flavors. This is another great Co-op variety.
  • Canadian Strawberry does bring, sometimes, that unusual strawberries flavor, but it also qualifies on other grounds.
  • Decio's ultra-dense texture feels kin to that of one-star Arkansas Black and two-star Winter Banana. This apple is very well balanced, and its ancient Roman pedigree seems valid.
The judges panel (me) was really on the fence about Decio this year. Not everyone will like this one, but I do. In the end, Decio's Roman story bumped the apple clearly into the two-star zone.

The charter for my rating system names "significance in the history of cultivated apples" as one of several factors beyond taste and texture for stardom. In practice this is the first time that history has played a role in awarding anything beyond the singleton level.

Note how unfair my rating system is. Based exclusively on eating qualities, it does not account for the the magic that Tremlett's Bitter brings to cider, or Pound Sweet's role as queen of apple butter. Baking apples are also slighted.

Apples with no stars may nonetheless be good to eat, and can also have other virtues. None of the apples I tried this year are a chore to chew. (Okay, maybe Tremlett's.)

My ratings are based on personal tastes, so can we talk about yours? Green Dragon is too sweet for me, personally, but I'd love to know what the Honeycrisp crowd makes of it. If that's you, please weigh in in the comments.

See you there.


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