Living in the Northeast there is a definitive “Start” to the holiday season in the fall – and for many its the annual trip the Apple Orchard. It seems like every family group has the singular orchard that they are loyal to, and for my family it’s a sprawling Hudson valley farm tucked into the hills, just far enough off of the main highway that you can forget the hustle and bustle of civilization.
When I brought Savory here for the first time a few years ago, we walked around and enjoyed taking nibbles of each varietal that we could find. We chatted merrily as we loaded our half bushel bags. We were already about 3\4 of the way to a full bushel when we wandered up a remote hill in the farther reaches of the orchard, and saw a little hand-painted sign at the end of one row proclaiming “Ashmead’s Kernel”.
The apples on the trees weren’t the prettiest – they weren’t bright red, or shining gold. They looked sort of ruddy and brown. The skin was thick like a quince, and the largest apple was about half of the size of the Gala apples already in our bags. But we bit in to try this strangely named apple. I remember rocking on the balls of my feet as my mouth was filled with the crisp, bright, and tangy flavor. I couldn’t put the apple down. Out of that entire adventure, this apple was the only one I ate down to the core.
Let’s pause for a moment to inject some history into Ashmead’s kernel. The variety can trace it roots back to the 1700’s. It comes from Europe, and was one of a few apple tree varietal’s that prospered well in the New World. The best growing regions are in New England from Pennsylvania to Maine. Considered a “heritage” species, it is a favorite for homesteaders and self sufficient growers because of it’s high cellaring quality. Apples with thicker flesh, like Ashmead’s Kernel, can be stored in root cellars and storage rooms for 8-10 months before spoiling. Properly cared for, the texture and flesh can seem as fresh in March as they were in September. The flavor will change however; cellaring apples sweeten over time and the tart crisp notes evolve into rich and sweet honey flavors.
Since that year, Savory and I have gone back annually, and now we grab our bags, head straight to the singular row of Ashmead’s Kernel at the orchard, load up, and go straight to the check out. We don’t spend the time exploring or trying other apples anymore. We’re dedicated to Ashmead.
Trying to describe Ashmead’s Kernel to someone who has never heard of it or tried it before is difficult. This year on our pilgrimage we brought along a friend of ours who has an affinity for apples. Despite living in the city, she proclaims herself to be a connoisseur of the finest apples available at her local bodega and has her preferences for Pink Lady and Macintosh. When we urged her to try our beloved Ashmeads she too was cut to the core by the sharp, tart taste. Next year, she intends to get a full sack for herself and her family to discover the change between the “off-the-tree” tartness and the “cellared” sweetness.
Savory and I wanted to capture that experience. We decided to make apple butter with the full batch of Ashmead’s Kernel that we picked, but track it’s progress over time. I made a small batch on the day that we picked them, then a second batch 3 weeks later, and a final batch another 4 weeks after that. We stuck to the same recipe from BALL’s Blue Book of Canning, though there were undoubtedly subtle changes along the way. In full disclosure, the first batch was processed with a hand mixer, the second just mashed with a potato masher, and the third we used our food processor to smooth out the pulp. We also didn’t track time as precisely as we would if we were conducting a more formal experiment. It’s so hard to stick to a recipe with canning. In general, it’s better to “feel” when it’s ready.
Finally we sat down, about a week after the final batch was processed. We tried the three spreads on water crackers and I was amazed at the variation. Batch 1 was as tart and sharp as the apples were picked off of the tree. This makes for a remarkably interesting apple butter. Batch 2 was much more mellow and classical in it’s flavor profile. Batch three was overly sweet and concentrated – not that this made for a bad apple butter mind you. It was thick and luscious, but it also could be attributed to the use of the three different methods in the preparation.
Undoubtedly our little experiment wasn’t the most accurate of tests, but we had fun. We intend to explore this topic further next year around harvest time. You’ll have to check back then to learn more about this amazing apple, the possibilities it holds, and in what preparations we like it best.