Photo by Jellaluna/Flickr CC
It's very nice to be able to get your favorite kind of apple now through Thanksgiving, or whenever your farmer's market stops for the winter (or you might be one of the few lucky people whose market it year-round). But once you know which you like best, it's just a matter of finding the farmers who seem to grow them best and looking for the specimens in the best condition.
Boring, that is. Much better to try apples you haven't had before, whose names sound appealing or whose looks attract you. The worst that can happen is that you'll pucker up and blow, discreetly of course. Zeke went through a number of new and old and came to his own own conclusions, ending with the always good advice to buy Cox's Pippins and russets when you find them. (Russets, generically named for their matte, rough skin, almost always have the spiciest, finest flavor I think.)
Last Saturday I visited a friend in Ghent, New York, just over the Massachusetts state line in the always splendid Berkshires (leaf-watching alert: I'd estimate that a quarter to a third of the leaves had turned, and barring heavy rains let alone my strictly amateur status, there should be three weeks' worth of good watching left). On my arrival she packed me into her de-rigueur SUV with Hobbes, her lively Airedale, and took me to the not-too-self-consciously charming hamlet of Chatham.
Our apple-discovery stop was an attractive, new-looking co-op called the Chatham Real Food Market, one of the new breed of locavore stores that look clean and spruce while still featuring plenty of raw-wood crates and hand-lettered signs.
Knowing my motto that I Brake For Bakeries, the first stop was the kind of storefront, narrow pastry shop of your dreams. Madeline Delosh, a pastry chef who trained with Jean-Georges Vongerichten among others and is a devoted Francophile, opened Mado's last summer after selling pastries at a local farmer's market. You can see her winsome, tired face in this article by Marilyn Bethany--just the same expression she offered us a few minutes past 4:00 p.m., when she was closing and there were only two things left: a few brownies and two puck-shaped walnut caramel tarts, half the top smartly dusted with confectioner's sugar. The pate-brisee crust was tender and buttery, the walnut pieces generous and held together by a not-too-sticky caramel; I devoured it on the spot, as she reminded me that we'd met a few years ago at a regional Slow Food launch event and asked why there hadn't been more Slow events lately. Between gooey bites I told her I'd kick it over to Josh Viertel and his Dumbo crew. We took a few homemade dog biscuits--the only other thing left--for Hobbes and continued.
(What is it about dog bakeries? Are they the new cupcake shops? My own Jamaica Plain just saw the opening of an enormous homemade pet-food store, with a layout like an old-fashioned general store and big glass jars of cookies and treats that I see as a big cheat for humans. Is this because people won't let themselves eat actual baked goods? Or that dog owners are taking a cue from helicopter parents and transfer their own obsessions about healthful food to the pets? The Web site has an of-course heartwarming description of the dog named Pearl, a one-eyed stray found in Puerto Rico, whose polka-like way of moving inspired the name, Polka Dog Bakery, and the owners to "use the finest ingredients, and bake and prepare all our delicacies by hand." I won't make a secret of my deep and abiding dog envy. But I'm still not sure how I view this trend.)
Our apple-discovery stop was an attractive, new-looking co-op called the Chatham Real Food Market, one of the new breed of locavore stores that look clean and spruce while still featuring plenty of raw-wood crates and hand-lettered signs. I headed straight for the apples, to see what I hadn't seen lately at Boston farmer's markets. And passed by most of them: Empire, the fine but kind of dull New York apple that helped give rise to the evil Delicious; Macoun and Cortland, related apples that are just fine but easy to find; Gala, a too-sweet apple I'll happily leave to New Zealand; and Honeycrisp, the University of Minnesota marketing smash that has taken the country (and Frank Bruni, though not Zeke despite his friend's predictions) by storm.
I went instead for two apples I always try when I find them, and will a bit later in Boston: Northern Spy, a good eating and pie apple, and Spartan, an exceptionally handsome, deep-purple apple. The Spy was fine, though still too tart; I'll wait. But the Spartan: what a fine and beautifully flavored apple, and its slightly pink, white, juicy flesh makes a handsome contrast to the high-shouldered shape and richly colored skin. Spartans have a long and proud New York State and, as you might expect from the name, New England history. Buy them when you find them.