Peter Burgess is as interested in the history of farming as he is in the practice itself. His farm in Truro is called Sixpence Farm, after a silver coin he found in the soil that dates back to 1689. Burgess focuses almost entirely on fruits and vegetables that would have been found here over a hundred years ago. On the day I visited, he told me about the apple varieties he planted, and why he chose them.
“I planted real old timey varieties,” he said. “This is a Baldwin. Before the McIntosh, the Baldwin was the apple of choice grown for the market.”
Baldwins are small and hard and generally blemish-free, with a tart flavor that has hints of sweet apricot and mulling spices. The variety started as a wild seedling in Wilmington, Massachusetts in the mid 1700s, and for over a century it was the most popular apple tree in New England. But the trees only bear heavily every other year and they’re vulnerable to hard winters. When the annual-bearing, cold hardy McIntosh was discovered on a farm in Ontario in the mid 1800s, it quickly took over.
“McIntosh has a different texture,” Burgess said. “It’s softer. It’s sweeter—but it doesn’t have the zip that a Macoun has.”
Macoun’s my favorite, I told him.
“Aw, that’s a good apple,” he agreed. “Macoun is crisp. It wakes up in your mouth, it’s semi-sweet.”
The Macoun is a cross between a Mac and a Jersey Black. It dates back to the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. The station opened in 1880—when agriculture employed over half the labor force in New York—and it’s still working to discover new innovations today. Dr. W.T. Macoun developed his namesake apple in 1909, and it’s many people’s favorite apple for eating fresh.
“This is a Northern Spy,” Burgess said, taking up another apple. “That’s another one of my favorites. It’s spicy. It’s very moist. It spritzes when you eat it, and it is so tart. It’s really an unusual apple.”
The Northern Spy isn’t as well known as the Macoun or the Mcintosh, but many cooks believe it is the absolute best apple for pie. It’s firm and tart and stands up well to heat, and the skin is both tender and thin. It was discovered in New York in 1800 and can take as long as a decade after planting to bear fruit, but its crisp, juicy white flesh make’s it worth it.
Last but not least, Burgess grows a beautiful, dark burgundy apple that originated in the south. It’s called an Arkansaw Black. It was a real old pioneer variety, he told me. “Arkansaw Black is kind of like the difference between honey and molasses,” he said. “It’s got attitude, it’s really good.”
Arkansaw Blacks are very hard when you pick them, but they keep well and they’ll get softer and sweeter in storage.
“I selected the varieties so that they will mature over three months,” he explained. “So the Mac will start first in late August, and the last one would be the Northern Spy, which actually will mature right up until November—starts maturing in late October and then you pick in November. So it’s a succession of apples.”
Apple trees have long been a feature of Cape Cod farms—Thoreau traveling the Cape in the mid-1800s observed that “trees were if possible, rarer than houses, excepting apple trees.” These days you can buy local apples at almost every Cape Cod farmers market, some grown here and others just over the bridge.
Here are links to some of my favorite apple recipes:
Here's some links to info on the apple varieties:
This piece first aired in October, 2015.