I went to another Old Sturbridge Village event this past weekend, and this time the theme was the apple harvest. I thought that I knew a few things about apples, but I learned that I really didn’t know much at all about apples. I was able to try samples of several different types of traditional apples and see how apples were pressed into cider in an ox powered press. It was an absolutely gorgeous day and really felt like fall. A perfect day to spend outside.
We had the opportunity to talk with a period horticulturalist who knew so much about apples. First of all, in the earlier part of our history, apples were primarily grown to be pressed into cider. These cider orchards were created by planting mashed apples in the ground and letting these trees grow from seed. They did not care how they grew or what they grew in to. It didn’t matter the types of apples, they were just looking for a large variety of apples that had the 3 characteristics to make the best cider: sweetness, juiciness, and acidity. Now the most shocking thing to me was that if, for example, you plant the seeds from a Macintosh apple in the ground, the trees that grow out of those seeds will not be Macintosh trees! They may have some of the qualities of Macintosh, but also the qualities of the type of apple tree that pollinated it. Sort of like how your child will not look exactly like you, but have the traits of yourself and your spouse.
Cider was a very important drink in New England because most of the inhabitants had come from England – where they drank cider. Everyone had a cider orchard and hoped for a large volume of apples. Families grew small family orchards (maybe 5 trees or so) where they would tend them carefully to produce the best fruit to use for cooking and baking. These trees were trimmed and fertilized. They were not meant to produce high volume of fruit, but the best tasting. These trees were not usually grown from seed (because you never knew what you were going to get), but were grafted. The simple description of grafting is taking a cutting of the type of tree you want to grow and inserting it into a cut made in a sapling tree. This cutting would grow into the sapling and grow into the type of tree you were looking for. This is the only way to get another Macintosh tree, for example.
During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps did a lot of work with apple orchards in New England. Unhealthy and untended orchards would be cleared out to make way for new, fresh orchards. In the process of doing this, they killed off many types of heritage apples that existed at the time. A small group of people would take cuttings of these heritage trees to graft and keep these heritage trees growing. Did you know that the most popular apple in New England, prior to 1933, was the Baldwin apple? In 1933, there was the worst winter recorded since colonization and 99% of the Baldwin apples died out. Do you know what type of apple survived this winter and has now become the epitome of the New England apple? MACINTOSH!
Now the most awesome event of the Apple Day festivities was the member’s apple pie contest. Myself and 14 other contestants entered our best apple pies for judging. Now prior to this event, I had not had an apple pie recipe. I made my Dutch Apple Pie recipe 2x this past week in order to make sure it came out well, and I had rave reviews. While waiting for the judging event, I became very nervous because a) I was the youngest entrant b) most of the others had entered before and/or won before and c) I have never entered a contest before. Well wouldn’t you know it, I won third place! I was so excited! I won tickets of a brunch at a local inn for two as well as the Sturbridge cookbook and a traditional apple corer. That was pretty awesome and a great end to a great day. I'm already planning on how I will edit my recipe to make 1st place next time.
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