I am eating a Gingergold as I write this. The first of the season – they’re weeks early due to the hot dry weather. The skin is crisp, the flesh is sweet and if I allow it to linger on my tongue… yes, just the slightest bit gingery. The second best thing of summer is finding the pinkish-green apples piled in baskets at the farmer’s market. The first is the moment I bite into one. Neither the first corn, the first blueberries or the first peaches can match the moment of the first Gingergold. Oh, there’s other apples, and they’ll keep me happy throughout the winter and into the spring, but the Gingergolds never last; there’s not enough of them to start with and fans like me buy them in bushel baskets, hoarding them in cool closets or cellars, desperate to make them last as long as possible.
Probably those Gingergold fans are going to be out for my head, having shared a harvest secret with TasteTO readers. See, we apple-lovers count on most of you to think of apples as coming in red, green and yellow, and to be ignorant of the over one hundred varieties of apples currently grown in Ontario.
Yes, a hundred; Agriculture Canada lists only forty for the whole country, with the Ontario Apples Growers website listing twenty for Ontario, although these sites include only the most popular varieties. That’s still a lot more than the Macs, Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious (red, green, yellow) you can find at the supermarket. But many of those hundred varieties are considered rare or heirloom, hearkening back to a time when we had more than three choices.
Of course, apple choice depends on the intended usage and time of year. While most apples except the Yellow Transparent – the first apples of the season, which are super-tart – can be eaten out of hand, the flesh in each is different. Empires, while delicious eaten fresh, are not good for baking; this cross between a Mac and a Red Delicious is far too wet. Better for pies are the sweet Gingergolds or Paula Reds or tart, solid Spys and Cortlands. Granny Smiths work well in savoury dishes and with curry. I like Ida Reds paired with squash or in squash soup.
Most apple growers have more than one variety and many who vend at our local farmer’s markets are happy to offer samples. It was the gentlemen at Brantview Apples and Cider who got me hooked on my beloved Gingergolds a few years ago, and I’m working my way through the other more readily available varieties.
With an average of 70 calories and 3 grams of fibre for a medium-sized apple, the fruit is also a healthy snack. According to the Ontario Apple Growers website:
Apples are extremely high in pectin – a soluble fibre and are packed with flavonoids (such as quercetin). Flavonoids are compounds that help give the colorful pigment to fruits and vegetables and research suggest that they may assist with reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, asthma and type 2 diabetes.
It is thought that apples were first cultivated in this country in Nova Scotia by the French settlers who built their homes in what is now one of Canada’s most well-known apple growing regions, the Annapolis Valley. Pioneers moving westward brought seeds with them and cultivated apples along the way. The fruit was hardy, and easy to preserve in a variety of forms to last throughout the rough winters.
In Ontario, cultivation of apples probably dates to around 1790 when growers in the Niagara Peninsula began growing cherries and peaches. The story of that most famous apple, the McIntosh is told on Agriculture Canada’s apple website:
The first McIntosh tree was discovered in 1811 at Dundela, Dundas County, Ontario by John McIntosh, the son of Scottish immigrants to the United States. He immigrated to Canada in 1796 from New York State, and eventually settled on a farm near Ottawa. He discovered an overgrown orchard on this property and transplanted twenty of the healthiest seedlings to new ground, but only one survived. This tree produced apples that all his neighbours commented on. True to his Scottish origins, McIntosh tried to capitalize on his new find but it wasn’t until 1835 when a peddler showed McIntosh techniques of bench grafting, that he succeeded in duplicating the famous McIntosh tree. However, the McIntosh was slow to gain acceptance by growers probably due to its susceptibility to scab. By 1900 with the new spray techniques becoming available to growers, McIntosh rapidly became an important variety. Today, McIntosh are cultivated in nearly every apple growing area of North America.
Today, Macs are but one of many apple varieties that are readily available year-round. With advanced storage facilities such as those operated by the Norfolk Fruit Growers Association in Simcoe, Ontario, apples remain at their peak of freshness for many months. The fruit is stored in huge warehouses with controlled temperatures and low oxygen levels, as well as a “hollow-fibre membrane nitrogen generator in each plant to establish the oxygen level in controlled-atmosphere storage, thus avoiding the introduction of hydrocarbons that would influence the production of ethylene, the fruit’s natural ripening agent.”
I’ve had the good fortune to be able to visit the NFGA’s storage facilities and it’s really a magnificent sight with what seems like miles and miles of bins full of apples, all as crisp as the day they were picked.
This means that throughout the winter, when all other local produce is long gone, most supermarkets can still carry Ontario apples with varieties such as Empires, a favourite in Norfolk county, available almost right through the summer. Apples from Ontario are also shipped throughout North America, as well as parts of Asia and Europe.
With so many varieties available fresh from now until November and with local apples available in stores year-round, it’s easy for folks to get their “apple a day”. Whether you bake them up in a pie or tart, add them to savoury dishes, salads or soups, or enjoy the juicy crispness of eating them out of hand, apples are a homegrown treat that shouldn’t be passed up.