Thursday, January 31, 2013

The new apples

Just a few years ago you knew what to expect in the fruit section in winter and spring. There would be Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and (incongruously) Granny Smith. In the Northeast and maybe elsewhere there would be McIntosh and his kin Empire and Cortland.

"Newer" stalwarts might include non-native Gala, Fuji, and Braeburn. In the Northeast you'd also get, fleetingly, the end of the Macouns, if you were lucky. It was the same every year.

Things have changed. The stalwarts are still there, but this week the shelves at my local supermarket were dominated by the likes of Jazz, Pinata, and Cripps Pink. Honeycrisp, like McIntosh, has established itself nearly year round, though like the Mac its best qualities thin over time.
Pacific Rose, Pinata, and Sweetango
No Pacific Rose this year, alas, but Junami has made a welcome reappearance after its too-brief debut last year.

A resurgence of new varieties has enlivened the apple world. Honeycrisp and Sweetango, both available in the fall when they are at their eating peak, have hard-core fan bases.

Ambrosia sometimes sweetens December and January, and Lady Alice a little later.

Not every new variety is a winner, but it's a real pleasure to have new choices in the off-season. This week I got to try Opal for the first time. I liked it a lot.

The New York Fruit Quarterly published a fascinating survey of new varieties, and the cartels that own and market them, back in 2010. It's an impressive list, and many are just hitting the retail markets now.

So how do these newbies thread the wholesale labyrinth and end up in our supermarkets and refrigerators?

It's worth pondering even as so many great heirloom varieties go uncelebrated. (When's the last time you saw a russet apple for sale in a supermarket? Yet they are great winter keepers with knockout flavors.)

These new apples are patented and licensed, creating a stream of fees that pay for marketing campaigns. If the marketing is good enough, the wholesalers and retailer will take the apple on.

Which is not, please note, the same thing as saying that the apple must be good enough.

You might think that more varieties means greater choice, but these new apples are often similar: red, and hard, and very sweet. It's as though they are all competing for the exact same set of taste buds.

No wonder one Italian breeder decided to chuck the whole new-variety thing and just rebrand venerable Fuji as "Kiku."

On the other hand, some of the newcomers offer fresh flavors within that sweet ambit. Malt seems to be a popular new taste (see Sweetango and Lady Alice); Pinata has tropical accents; Jazz and Opal are also pleasing in original ways.

I celebrate the new apples and hope that the trend back to flavor is real. Finding anything new in the off-season is a special treat.


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