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Audacious to the core

Tart and spicy, old-school apples are finally making the local scene. Fuji, Gala? Meet your competition.

September 12, 2007|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Watch the faces of the shoppers as they paw through the bins of apples at the See Canyon or Windrose Farm stands at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. The spicy, tart perfume rises up as happy hands sort fruit. Depending on the season, there might be Bellflowers, Esopus Spitzenbergs, White Winter Pearmains, Smokehouses and Arkansas Blacks. Muttered like an incantation, these are names that set apple lovers' hearts aflutter.

Apples are plentiful at Southern California farmers markets. Every fall there's a big crop of Fujis and Galas, and certainly, these can be really good apples. But stop by these two stands and you'll find something extraordinary -- apples with history. Some of these varieties have been available at Southern California farmers markets before, but this year, thanks to the work of a few enterprising farmers, there are more than ever.

These old apples can have a powerful pull. Bill Spencer of Windrose Farm likes to tell about the first year he and his wife, Barbara, brought their old apples to market. "There was an old woman from Germany or somewhere and the first time she tasted a Belle de Boskoop [an old variety from the Netherlands], she just broke down," he says. "Tears were just streaming down her face. It was home and she hadn't tasted it in 40 years."

Though both farmers also grow new apples, these old varieties offer a range of flavors and textures that you can't find anyplace else, and that demand exploring.

"The Fuji is a very good beginner's apple," says Mike Cirone of See Canyon. "But the Spitzenberg is for more sophisticated palates. And then there are apples like the Arkansas Black that will only appeal to certain people.

"But one thing I've noticed at the Santa Monica market is that customers who have been buying from us for years gradually drift into the older varieties."

That is true whether you're eating the apples out of hand, savoring their perfume and spice, or baking them to use in cakes, pies and ice cream.

In truth, it seems these old apples are as beguiling to the farmers who grow them as they are to the people who buy them.

Daisy Dell Ranch is about halfway up See Canyon, just outside of San Luis Obispo. The canyon is steep on both sides and the orchard is no more than a quarter-mile wide -- just about all the flat land available. Here, graceful, tall old trees are mixed in with short, bushy new ones, grown on dwarfing rootstock for easier working.

Here's the Bellflower, a towering tree that was already bearing fruit in 1916 when the ranch was bought by the father of the current owners, three siblings now in their 90s. The variety dates back at least to 1817 and is probably related to the French Belle-Fleur apple that goes back much further. Here's White Winter Pearmain, an English apple that dates to at least the 1200s. And here's an Arkansas Black, which dates from 1870.

Less than 50 miles away, in the sun-seared hill country just east of Paso Robles, Windrose's Bill Spencer farms venerable varieties as well. Here's an Esopus Spitzenberg (1790): "Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple," he says. And here's Calville Blanc (1598), Sierra Beauty (1890s), Smokehouse (1837) and Blacktwig (1868).

But just when you think you've stumbled into yet another apple antiquarian reverie, Spencer pulls you up short. Scattered among all of those old-timers are half a dozen modern apples, including Fuji, Gala, Anna and Mutsu, the last being one of his favorites.

"It's got such great complexity," he says. "So what am I supposed to do? Not grow a great apple because it's new?"

It's the same story in See Canyon. In fact, one of Cirone's favorite apples is a Red Delicious, for goodness' sake (though probably not like any you've ever had).

What's going on here? Modern apple farming in California, that's what.

At Daisy Dell Ranch and Windrose Farm, apples from California's past and present are being knit together in the hopes that they add up to a real future.


Red, but not so delicious

THE latter decades of the 20th century were extremely hard on American apple growers, and it's not too strong to say that the industry was near collapse. One agricultural economist estimated that growers of Red Delicious lost money on every harvest in the 1990s. The Red Delicious had become a kind of poster child for what is wrong with modern agriculture.

Over the years, as it was bred to have darker and redder skin, few noticed until it was too late that the Red Delicious peel was also getting thicker and more bitter.

In California, at the far southern extreme of the fruit's growing range, the situation has been worse. Apple acreage in the state has been cut in half in the last 20 years.

For Cirone and the Spencers, it's selling at farmers markets, where they earn a greater percentage of the selling price, and offering apples that others can't -- or won't -- grow that gives them their edge.

When Cirone started farming apples in 1984, it was obvious, he says, that change was necessary.

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