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Biting into heirloom apples

There are thousands varieties apples. Among them is SweeTango (pictured) from creators Honeycrisp.

There are thousands of varieties of apples. Among them is the SweeTango (pictured), from the creators of the Honeycrisp.

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Updated: November 19, 2010 5:08PM

At the Tuesday farmers market outside of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, Chad Nichols is at it again, tempting passersby with apples. Suntanned and enthusiastic, Nichols stabs his pocket knife into his homegrown apples - apples with names like Freedom, Liberty, NY 674, Cox's Orange Pippin and Supreme Staymared - and expertly slices off free tastes for pedestrians strolling through the market.

"Step right up! Freedom! Ooooh, everyone loves Freedom!" he says in a carnival-like pitch, hoping to draw those who seldom venture beyond commercial apples into his flavor-hyped world of oddly shaped, imperfect heirloom apples.

More than 200 apple varieties grow on his family's farm and orchard in Marengo, but Nichols is well aware the odds are against his heirloom apples until - and only until - they're tasted.

"I try to confuse people so they will say, ‘They're all good,' " Nichols admits. "One taste convinces most people of what they've been missing."

Small slice of the market

Nichols and his competitors - including Peter Klein of Chicago, who grows 26 apple varieties on his 81-acre Seedling Enterprises farm in South Haven, Mich. - know that their job entails trying to steer generations who have grown up on perfectly shaped, bright red and shiny (albeit waxed) Red Delicious apples to their cosmetically challenged but oh-so-flavorful heirloom counterparts.

It's an uphill battle but one worth engaging, say Philip and Lauren Rubin, authors of the new cookbook The Comfort of Apples (Lyons Press, $19.95). A mere 11 of the 14,000 apple varieties that grew from seeds brought to the United States by English settlers make up 90 percent of the U.S. apple market, they say.

So, while U.S. consumers can tick off the names of apples sold in their local stores - Granny Smith, Fuji, Gala, McIntosh, Red Delicious - and may be acquainted with less-familiar but available apples such as Honeycrisp, Macoun and Empire, the remaining 10 percent of apples, complete with their bumps, bruises and blemishes, are sold mostly at farmers' markets, U-pick orchards and roadside stands.

The Rubins call America's contentment with only 11 apple varieties "supremely human."

"We gravitate toward the comfortable, the familiar and the predictable. We know [supermarket apples] will taste sweet, feel marble-smooth and come in crayon-like reds, yellows and greens," they write.

"While there's nothing wrong with a supermarket apple, it's like watching a game on television versus sitting in the front row," they say.

The Rubins argue that a green-market apple is "sensually much more satisfying" than a commercial apple, comparing the heirloom to a scuffed baseball ("it feels interesting and beckons you to roll it around in your palm"). A scavenger hunt for a palate-pleasing apple is time well-spent, they say.

"There are thousands [of apples] out there, many of which you'll never forget," say the Manhattan caterers, whose collection of nearly 100 recipes suggest apples can be julienned raw in salad, poached in wine, used in the form of cider to deglaze or braise, fermented into warm drinks or juiced and turned into sorbet.

To develop taste buds for heirloom apples, Philip (a self-described apple snob who favors Stayman Winesap, Empire and Granny Smith) and Lauren (who prefers Honeycrisp and Macoun) recommend apple-tasting parties.

Limit the tasting to 12 to 15 varieties and provide "lots and lots of water - or acidity will become a problem," Philip Rubin says. Crackers and cheese could be added to the tasting, if desired.

Mix-and-match varieties

Klein, whose orchards are producing four "funky" new varieties - the sweet-tart Valstar, spicy Smokehouse, very juicy Summer Rambo, and applesauce-perfect Wolf River - says apple tastes depend on personal preference.

"I can have 10 customers, and each has a different favorite apple for flavor. And each defines crisp differently," says Klein, who personally favors early Fuji and Senshu.

"I tell customers to taste as many [varieties] as you have time for and the stomach for. If you can, taste them all," he says.

Even within the same variety, flavor and texture vary from tree to tree and from picking to picking, he says. In an attempt to encourage customers to blend varieties for optimum taste, Klein offers pre-mixed bags of apples for pies and applesauce.

Chef Kevin Hickey of the Four Seasons Chicago grew up with Red Delicious and Granny Smith, "and never thought there was any other variety." That changed when he tasted a Honeycrisp.

"It was as if I'd never had an apple before," says Hickey, who now prefers Honeycrisp and Arkansas Black for eating, and Fuji and Granny Smiths for cooking.

Asked her best advice for apple enthusiasts, Lauren Rubin says: "Keep tasting."

Sandy Thorn Clark is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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