When I was growing up in northern New England, I used to try wild apples. They could be found in the countryside and even deep in the woods, still growing in orchards abandoned 50 or 100 years before. Quite a few of these apples were “spitters,” but the good ones spoiled me for any supermarket commodity apple.
Amy Traverso’s book made me remember those old orchards, which are stark evidence of the collapse of diversity in American apple growing. One hundred years ago, about 15,000 named varieties of apples were grown in North America. Today, most of them are extinct. Apple preservationists are working to reverse this trend, and thanks to their efforts, you can now buy heirloom varieties such as Black Oxfords, Roxbury Russets, and Yellow Transparents at farmers’ markets and specialty orchards. But what to do with them when you get them home? The Apple Lover’s Cookbook has it covered.
The heart of the book is a detailed guide to 59 apple varieties, all of which are currently grown somewhere in the country. Each type of apple gets a glamorous photo along with information about its history, best uses, availability, appearance and taste (e.g., “flavors of honey and pear” or “sweet, rich and spicy, with a mild aroma of cilantro”). The usual supermarket suspects are here, but never mind them. The fun is in learning about and desiring varieties that you have never heard of, with evocative names like Westfield Seek-No-Further, Esopus Spitzenburg, or Calville Blanc D’Hiver.
The most useful and clever thing about the guide is that each variety is assigned to one of four categories based on its taste and texture: firm-tart, firm-sweet, tender-tart or tender-sweet. Most of Traverso’s recipes call for apples by category, not by name, so you can use a supermarket apple or an heirloom, as long as it’s from the right category. However, if you’re just cooking with Granny Smiths, you’re missing the point.
This is probably the place to confess that what first attracted me to this book was a photograph of a doughnut. The beautiful pictures of dishes such as Apple-Stuffed Biscuit Buns, Dutch Baby, Apple and Mustard Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, and Pork and Apple Pie with Cheddar-Sage Crust will have you searching the kitchen junk drawer for your apple corer.
If this book has a hero, it is the Maine apple historian John Bunker, profiled in one of the brief articles scattered among the recipes. The story of how he tracked down and rescued the last known branch of Marlboro apples in existence is downright inspiring. In honor of people like him, don’t buy that pretty but soulless Red Delicious the next time you visit the supermarket. Put it back down, and see if you can find a Baldwin, a Gravenstein or a Northern Spy instead.
Check the WRL catalog for The Apple Lover’s Cookbook