I’ve always had a fondness for a good apple, which seems to be an increasingly hard thing to find these days. Everyone has their own version, but for me, a good apple has crisp flesh that almost feels cold when you bite in. It’s tart, with a hint of sweetness overlaying it, and there’s a brief sensation of bitter almonds somewhere in there too. The skin is thin enough to easily bite through, but thick enough to offer some texture. It’s juicy. A good apple can be eaten right out of hand without adornment and it’s just fine as it is.
My requirements for pie and cider apples are a bit different, of course, which is why we put apples in different categories. An apple I’ve never consider touching if I was looking for a quick snack might be dandy in a pie, and I’ll tolerate more mealiness from cider apples as long as they’re juicy because who really cares about the texture of the flesh in that situation, right? We have bigger and more important things to think about, like how well that thing is gonna juice.
It’s been estimated that there are over 7,500 named apple cultivars, which is a truly staggering number, but all the more staggering for the fact that by the time we started counting, a lot had already been lost. People have been cultivating apples for a very long time and many civilisations brought apples with them as they traveled, conquered, and traded with others. Thus arises a whole new category of apple hybrids, combining the best traits of varieties from radically different places and carrying little pieces of history with them along the way.
We can trace the history of some apple cultivars back over the course of centuries, a pretty neat trick for a fruit many people think of as rather humble. The apple appears in scores of recipes and sometimes shows up in unexpected places, and I’m not talking about the mouth of a roast pig. Apples are amazing in their very ordinariness; everyone knows the apple. Even the most meagre of produce sections usually features apples. Apples and oranges.
Apples, as a collective, are in danger. The number of cultivars in widespread cultivation are rapidly shrinking to those that are shelf-stable, easy to handle, predictable, standard in size, and so forth. People are raising and breeding apples in terms of marketability, and things like flavour and diversity are not at the top of the list when it comes to deciding which apple cultivars to continue developing. For every granny smith and Fuji in the store, rare cultivars are vanishing somewhere else.
Some people are working to save apple cultivars. There are orchards focusing on rare and unique varieties and gardeners can order trees from these orchards and partner nurseries. Promotion of rare varietals crops up in stores now and then; recently I saw a bin of apples with a little sign talking about their history and what kinds of dishes they could be used in, encouraging grocery store shoppers to consider branching out. But it’s pretty much impossible to stem the tide released by commercial agriculture. Bringing rare cultivars to the store is just too costly.
I think the loss of apple heritage is sad from a lot of perspectives. I know that people often write off conversations about biodiversity and the loss of rare plant cultivars as foodie wanking, but it’s more complicated than that. Yes, foodies are very fond of talking about rare foods and there seems to be an attitude in some communities that knowing about rare cultivars makes you more knowledgeable, part of the insider’s club, better perhaps than those boring people who are satisfied with a plain old grocery store apple.
But there’s also a rich history we’re missing out on. Behind each apple is a story, for those who want to take the time to do the research. Some cultivars have a really interesting history, actually. The apple is not just an apple, but a political, cultural, social, and economic symbol. Learning about the origins of a cultivar can provide interesting pieces of a historic puzzle. Who was Johnny Appleseed? Did he really do what people said he did? Was he real? These are interesting questions to ask! They tell us not just about the history of apples, but agriculture in general, and they provide interesting insights into society in an earlier era.
There are also, of course, scientific grounds for being sad about losing apples. Genetic diversity is very important. Without maintaining apple varieties, we miss chunks of the genetic history of the apple. And we also risk the monoculture problem, where crops become tremendously vulnerable in poor weather, blights, and other conditions. If every orchard only has red delicious and a mold attacks red delicious, where are your apples going to come from? If you need hybrid vigor to resist a new apple disease, what are you going to crossbreed with your apples when all you have is the same variety, endlessly, as far as the eye can see?
Monoculture can be seen perhaps most starkly with the banana. Most people think of a Cavendish when they hear the word ‘banana’ and if the world’s Cavendish crop is ever wiped out, the banana will go back to being a rare, unusual, and very expensive tropical fruit as people struggle to fill the need with other cultivars, many of which have dwindled because everyone, everywhere, grows Cavendish. That could happen to the apple someday too.