There is an Italian expression –
“Brutti ma Buoni“, literally “Ugly but Good”.
It seems a fitting phrase for fruits and vegetables that although not cosmetically perfect, have all the integrity if not all of their beauty.
On many occasions, Farmers have offered me “seconds” here or there, knowing that a giant, clumsy head of escarole is not preferred by market customers, or that a gnarled cicely root is unsalable because people don’t know quite what to do with such a twisted, bizairre thing – perhaps I could come up with something user-friendly? I happily take in what I am given and provide delicious asylum for the unsought.
So the day that the Farmers Market was ending, and Susan Christopherson, farmer of Old World Apples, offered me a case of “drops” so that she didn’t have to lug them back to the farm, I practically jumped for joy.
Old World Apples are amazing. Seriously. Located just outside Ridgefield Washington, near a wild bird refuge, Susan devotes her farm to heritage apple varieties, grown organically, harvested lovingly by hand. Picturesquely pastoral, no? Along with my grandmother’s crust, they made the best apple pie of my life, and I’m an old hand at making (and eating) pie.
Susan moved out to the farm 23 years ago, and began planting trees 7 years later. “But I had been enjoying apples from the old trees from the start – they were the main reason for moving here,” she states. Christopherson realized that the older, tastier, more texturally pleasing heritage apples were difficult to locate anywhere, impossible to find at the supermarket. Over the years, she has established over 40 varieties. “This year, I’m taking out 20 of the honey-crisp variety.” They were uncommon when she began farming apples, but have since gone mainstream. “I’m thankful for them, for a long time they supported me so that I could plant more obscure varieties, but now they’re much more widely available.”
So just how old are the “old trees” on the Old World Apple Farm? “There are several hundred-year-old trees that are still producing,” says Christopherson, “Two Rhode Island Greening & 2 King, and 3 Northern Spy that are close to 100 years old.” She began planting other varieties in 1995, and says that most of the trees are under 13 years of age. “Some are single tree varieties, but I usually plant a minimum of 4 or 5 of each variety of old heritage apples.”
So, why organic? “Organic apples taste better.” Christopherson states plainly. “There is a depth and complexity that conventional apples just don’t have.” Then she adds her recent experience, “I get my apple boxes from the supermarket, and sometimes there’s an apple that’s been left in the box. One was beautiful and shiny, but I just couldn’t bite it.” She added that the bulk of the conventional pesticides and fungicides used leave residues that are found in the skin, so she peeled it before tasting. “It was nice – juicy, crisp, a wonderful texture…but there was an echo of something unnatural. A shadow of flavor that didn’t fit. I was not comfortable eating it.”
Old World Apples are not certified organic, but are in fact raised organically. Available at the Farmers Market booth is a printout stating Old World Apples’ farming practices – they use a lime sulfer spray to fight fungus, which Christopherson says is “not harmful to man or beast,” and a clear, food-grade oil to smother insect larvae and eggs. “You are just open and honest and tell people exactly what you do, and they either choose to believe you or not.” To look the person who is raising your food square in the eye, to taste their product, to notice the difference seems reassurance enough to me.
So what is this Old World Apple guru’s favorite variety? “Whichever are in season. When Gravenstein come out, you know there is not another better apple in the world. Then come the Pink Pearl to take their place. The Spars and King David are the last to ripen, and that’s when they are the best.”
What to do with the case was a no-brainer. When the world hands you lemons, make lemonade…when the farmer makes available a case of “brutti ma buoni” apples, make applesauce!
Old World Applesauce
The key to good applesauce is to use a variety of apples with different flavors and textures. Susan Christopherson decided not to peel her apples this year for her applesauce and said that the peels were pleasant, not chewy, and didn’t separate from the sauce. While I can appreciate the added health benefits of unpeeled organic apples, I do prefer to peel.
Take an amount of apples. Peel them, quarter them, cut out the core. Put enough water in a wide, heavy-bottomed non-reactive pot (I use enameled cast iron) to cover the bottom by 1/4 inch. Taste the apples. Add a couple or a few spoonfuls of granulated sugar (depending on the level of sweetness of the apples) to the water, and stir to dissolve the sugar.
Bring the sugar-water to a boil, then add the prepared apples. Simmer the apples over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they collapse into a saucy mass. You can leave the applesauce very chunky, mash it with a potato masher (as I do, then allow it to cook further, until it is as thick as I like – keep in mind that the sauce will thicken slightly when cooled), put it through a food mill, or process it with a food processor or immersion blender, depending on your consistency preference.
Once smooth, you can cook down the applesauce further to a thicker sauce or apple butter, keeping a diligent watch and stirring most frequently so that scorching does not occur.
Either eat the applesauce, warm or chilled (it will last several days in the refrigerator), or add the boiling-hot applesauce to hot, sterilized canning jars, leaving 1/2 an inch of head-space.
Remove any air bubbles with a chopstick and wipe clean the rims and tops of the jars. Place lids on the jars to seal, and process in a boiling water bath (15 minutes for pints, 2o minutes for quarts).
This time around, with so many apples, I made several batches. One I left pure – apples, a little sugar, and a little water (the water keeps the apples from sticking when you begin cooking – don’t use too much water as the apples will release quite a bit of liquid during the cooking process; too much water and later you will have to cook off the excess so your sauce is sauce, not soup).
To the second batch, I added a split vanilla bean. When the sauce was finished, I removed the bean, then jarred and processed the sauce.
To the third, I added a cinnamon stick while the apples simmered. When it had finished cooking, I desired a brighter cinnamon flavor along with the cooked-in back-notes of cinnamon that the stick had lent. I stirred in some Ceylon cinnamon. Ceylon has a soft, complex taste with hints of citrus. It is ideal for fruit-based desserts, breads, and other preparations.
Susan Christopherson of Old World Apples would love to hear feedback. “I have access to getting any apple from anywhere,” she mentions. Once, a woman saw a “20 ounce” at my booth and started to cry. ‘My Grandma back in Wisconsin had them!’ she told me. What’s your favorite?…”
Feel free to comment here, or visit Old World Apples at the Portland Farmers Market next September (Susan is out of apples for the season, but is anticipating a return to the market the first Saturday in September).