I’ve grown accustomed to mini-successes in the garden. A few golden threads of homegrown saffron, a handful of Jefferson’s luscious green figs, a lone Angelique tulip which returns year after year despite the vanishing of all its companions.
It’s important not to call them “failures” because gardening is about the hardest thing you can do. It’s not at all like cooking where, as long as your ingredients are good and the techniques are well-considered, you will likely create something delicious to eat.
But in the garden the opportunities for mishaps are rampant. Squirrels feast on tulip bulbs, the plumper the better, so one year’s glorious display gives way to bare beds the next. Fantastic yields of the sweetest cherry tomatoes you can imagine dwindle to nothing when trees grow so tall they block the sunshine. Rabbits, voles, drought, thieving delivery men—yes, I caught one filling a bag with crabapples—hurricanes, depleted soil, hungry birds: Disaster lurks around every corner.
In the more innocent months before 9/11, I had the idea of planting heirloom apple trees in the corners of our foursquare herb garden which is divided by old brick paths, and training them to grow over a graceful arch fashioned of rebar. I had visions of antique apples dangling just above our heads, ripe for the plucking. There would be apples for caramelized tarte tatin, spiced apples with cassia, ginger and lemon, apples for eating out of hand with slices of cheese and brown bread.
In short, there would be apples, and lots of them. So I went to see Lee Calhoun.
Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr. is the foremost authority on old-fashioned Southern apples. Three decades ago, after retiring from the military, he started driving the backroads of the South, searching for heirloom apple trees. As Global Province (#156) writes, “he found them in barnyards and abandoned orchards, often unnamed or misidentified, but still prized by their owners for their wondrous, memory-laden fruit.” He took cuttings, did some research and started a nursery.
In 1995 Calhoun wrote the definitive book on the subject: Old Southern Apples; a revised and expanded version was released earlier this year by Chelsea Green. The book now covers over 1800 varieties of mostly forgotten Southern apples, describing each in minute detail and giving historical information about its origins. It includes beautiful watercolors commissioned by the USDA’s Division of Pomology in the late 19th century.
You can watch Calhoun discuss heirloom apples on these YouTube Videos.
As noted in The New York Times, Calhoun has given his collection “to young growers like David C. Vernon, who now sells more than 400 heirloom apple varieties at Century Farm Orchards in Reidsville, N.C., a farm that has been in his family since 1872. “ He also planted 800 apple trees at Horne Creek Living Historical Farm in Pinnacle, N.C.
But back to the apple arch.
Calhoun happens to live about 20 miles from us, so I went to ask him what apples I should plant. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but certainly not the rows and rows of elegantly espaliered trees that were the centerpiece of his sprawling nursery. Lee was gracious with his time and with his advice, not only walking me through his impressive collection but also allowing me to examine the exquisite Japanese-style woodwork inside his home.
We finally decided on four—Hoover, Crow Egg, Black Amish and Kinnaird’s Choice, all grafted onto M9 rootstock—at $12 each. They were short and spindly—he called them “whips”—and I did wonder if they would ever grow into trees. But after the arch was installed, we planted them, one at the base of each iron leg. We were in business, I thought.
I won’t chronicle the mishaps that occurred, or the missteps that I took. Let’s just say that we didn’t prune or fertilize on any sort of schedule, and that I simply could not follow Lee’s instructions about stripping off all the ruffly blossoms each spring so as to promote growth in the early years. We further abuse the trees by wrapping Christmas lights around their branches, but maybe the glow keeps them warm on cold winter nights.
Somehow though, and I guess this tells you how tough these trees are, all four have survived. Hoover and Crow Egg have actually flourished, growing long leafy boughs that I’ve trained over the arch. Sporadically each bears a few apples which is more than we deserve, but thanks to birds and squirrels, they’ve never had a chance to ripen. The other two varieties have, shall we say, languished.
This year there were no apples at all.
Then early this morning, a red cheek winked at me from beneath a canopy of green. There it was, a single Kinnaird’s Choice, hidden under the leaves. It’s small and round, with a deep red blush that spreads over bright green skin flecked with spots. There is a dried scab on top and a bruise or two. To me, it is beautiful.
But is it ripe?
According to Calhoun’s book, Kinnaird’s Choice, also known as Red Winter Cluster and Black Winesap, “fruits well in much of the South.” It may have originated about 1855 on the farm of Michael Kinnaird of Franklin, Tennessee, and was thought to be a cross of the Winesap and Limbertwig apples. A 1908 USDA Bulletin praised its “good size, attractive dark red color and pleasing dessert quality.”
Calhoun himself says Kinnaird’s Choice has “yellowish” flesh, and is “moderately fine-grained, crisp, tender, juicy, somewhat aromatic, mild subacid.” Sounds great to me. Juicy and tart, with a touch of sweet.
But is this one ripe?
Here we go: “Ripe October-March and ‘at its best in January’ in the mountains, but ripens in mid-September in central North Carolina.”
Yes! We’re a week away, but I’m not about to take a chance with the squirrels. I picked it a few minutes ago.
What do you do when you have just one homegrown apple? Well, you don’t make a tart, or even a baked apple. No, I just want to taste Kinnaird’s Choice. So I’m going to cut it in thin slices, and follow Nikki Segnit’s advice, serving it with a sliver of “tangy, mature” English cheddar and maybe a dollop of Indian chutney. In The Flavor Thesaurus, she writes that “the sharpness of the apple cuts through the salty creaminess of the cheese, making it just the thing with good beer or cider.”
The tarte tatin will have to wait for another year.