|Left to right: McIntosh, Honeycrisp. Click photo for close-up.|
And looming large at right, from the breeding program of the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, surging in popularity, the younger, bigger, and much much sweeter Honeycrisp.
Of all my pairings, this head-to-head must be my most antagonistic. Not only is upstart Honeycrisp stealing market share from the venerable Mac, but the Province of Nova Scotia has deployed the big guy as a pomicidal weapon, paying farmers to rip out McIntosh trees and plant Honeycrisp.
This is a real grudge match.
McIntosh is a medium-to-large apple with a streaky red blush that has a hint of purple. It's round and a little ribbed. Many small light lenticels decorate the skin.
Honeycrisp is huge, a cheerful red just the orange side of a fire truck. Small distinct light lenticels rise from a dense cloud at the base, spreading and dissipating upwards. It's also round and slightly ribbed, with a surface that is marked with small regular dimples, like a golf ball (but less pronounced).
They are both attractive apples in very different ways. McIntosh is understated but pretty, its blush suggesting red wine. Honeycrisp is vivid and bright like a candy or a toy.
Okay, lets eat. I should mention that I've got a second Mac here to supplement the smallish one I've started with, to match Honeycrisp bite for bite.
Honeycrisp's flesh is, as some promoters would have it, explosively sweet, a coarse light yellow that is very crisp and dripping with juice. Inside the Mac is a bit denser and also quite juicy, white with green highlights, and crisp.
Honeycrisp's texture, combined with its light quality, is very appealing. Its flavor does not change. Its intense sugar batters the Mac, alternating bites, but McIntosh's berries-and-wine flavors slowly reassert each time. To my surprise, as I eat back and forth the two antagonists are grudgingly complementary.
The best part of Honeycrisp's taste is the beginning of the first bite after eating some McIntosh, allowing hidden flavors to briefly peek through the wall of sugar. The first Mac bite after Honeycrisp is strangely watery and delicate by contrast, not something I associate with McIntosh, and there is a brief attenuated caramel note that I've never tasted in Mac before.
Honeycrisp for its part teases us with a brief flash of cabbage, sugared cole slaw, before the sweetness sweeps everything away.
People pay extra for Honeycrisps, which are tricky to grow and can be in short supply, but the plentiful (and dependable) Macs are cheap.
Both apples are consistent and faithful throughout. And which is better? Well, listen.
To me it is clear why both of these apples are popular. What's not so clear is why they would be popular with the same people. They are not just very different, they seem to chase fundamentally different ideals of what an apple should be. Wine or candy?
McIntosh has the better balance of sweet and tart, and rewards the taster with a dry astringent finish that lingers wonderfully in the mouth and throat. Honeycrisp has an amazing crunch, but I find the flavor cloying. Its sugar sweeps all away before it, which is impressive, but I like to taste things more than that. I did notice a slightly floral quality in Honeycrisp's finish that is very pleasant.
Whether Honeycrisp is the young prince ready to ride in and relieve the old man of his burdens, or an uncouth, faddish usurper, is probably in the palate of the taster.
The economic struggle between these apples does not mean they cannot share a plate and make some limited complementary synergy. I learned a bit more about both varieties by eating them together.
However, the Mac's balanced, measured flavors do not hold up well to Honeycrisp's saturated sweetness, and I think that the many qualities of McIntosh, at any rate, shine much brighter without Honeycrisp in the room, or at least the mouth.
As for the war between the Mac and Honeycrisp, time will tell. Arguably there are already plenty of McIntosh trees in the Northeast (at least the market seems to think so) and it does not follow that if the Mac wanes a bit it will therefore be extinguished.
I should be dismayed however if McIntosh declined so much that it no longer cracked the wholesale market and consequently was not available in supermarkets in winter and spring. Its authentic flavors are a welcome alternative to the saccharine stuff that is popular nowadays.