October is apple picking time

apples2Sometime this month we are bound to get a frost that will spell the end of most plants. There will be some that will soldier on until a strong freeze actually finishes the job.

October, though, is also the month for the apples, which come into their prime during these 31 days.

Granted, some apples started ripening in July. Those early apples are great for the 48 hours they sit on the counter before the skin starts popping and the flesh turns to mush. They might last a week in the refrigerator, but don’t expect them to keep. These are perfect for making summer applesauce and for saying to your neighbors “Hey, I have apples. What do you have?” Early Harvest and Lodi are the two most common varieties.

But like zucchini, the early apples are more about texture instead of flavor. They aren’t great eating apples unless you sprinkle them with cinnamon or dip them in caramel.

The great thing about apples is the diversity of their flavors. No other fruit probably runs the gamut from puckering tartness to a sweetness that recalls the ripest peach, from a crispness like autumn air to the mushiness of melting snow. Find a great apple, and you’ll remember it forever.

We’ve come about 180 degrees in the last 40 years regarding apples, which from this point of view, is great.

I’ve made no bones about the fact Red Delicious apples are one of the most picture perfect apples that look great sitting on the counter. But what the apple makes up in beauty is only on the surface. Underneath, it’s like eating cardboard sprinkled with a pinch of sugar. There is no flavor.

Consumers, probably with help from plant breeders, have revolted and now want apples with some flavor.

Sadly, Red Delicious will still stick around since it looks great, just like that movie star who has great looks but couldn’t act herself/himself out of the proverbial paper bag. Keep the apple for those who’ve lost any sense of taste and like biting into something with crunch.

Some of the newer varieties including the Gala family, Fuji and Honeycrisp have made a name for themselves with flavor and texture, though they may not have the staying power in the refrigerator as Red Delicious, especially the Honeycrisp. But the goal is to keep eating them, isn’t it?

Likewise, there is a resurgence in the old time or heirloom varieties such as Rome, (technically Rome Beauty) Arkansas Black and any of the Winesaps, which may not have the perfect shape, but do have great flavor and longevity in the refrigerator. And, you can’t beat the tart sweetness of a good Jonathan apple. They’re great apples for the winter and some think a light frost makes their flavor more intense.

David Robson is Extension Specialist, Pesticide Safety for the University of Illinois. drobson@illinois.edu
David Robson is Extension Specialist, Pesticide Safety for the University of Illinois. drobson@illinois.edu

There are lots of farmers markets throughout Illinois where you can find a multitude of varieties of apples. Many of the stalls are run by hobby orchardists who want to rightly perpetuate the older, tastier varieties.

Many orchards may have several trees of the old heirloom types for sale. Get there early!

You might be lucky to find a selection in the grocery store. The ideal thing to do is conduct your own blind taste test, buying several types and having family and friends decide which one they prefer.