Red Delicious? Not anymore.
McIntosh? Tragically un-hip.
Empire? The sun has set.
Ontario apple farmers say these former stalwarts of the orchard are on the wane as customers clamour for newer, sweeter varieties.
“I think the trend is sweeter — low acid, sweet, hard texture, crunchy texture. Everybody’s kind of hung up on that,” said Casey Cleaver of Cleaver Orchards.
Cleaver ought to know. A fourth-generation apple farmer in Simcoe, he grows 45 kinds of apples on his 130-acre farm.
More than 100 of those acres are dedicated to popular varieties like Gala, Honeycrisp and Ambrosia, which are sent down the road for sorting and packing at the Norfolk Fruit Growers Association, a co-operative of Norfolk County apple growers to which the Cleavers have long belonged.
But it’s the remaining 25 acres that get Cleaver especially excited. There he grows dozens of lesser-known apples, from heirloom classics like Gravenstein and Golden Russet to up-and-coming varieties yet to be named.
“There were all these old varieties and a slew of new varieties on the horizon that I think fit the consumer profile better (than traditional favourites),” Cleaver explained.
“Whether the commercial market wants them or not, I have the option of standing here face to face and getting people on board. That’s what brings me all the joy.”
At first, introducing unfamiliar apples to shoppers at the orchard’s roadside stand was a hard sell.
Some customers initially balked at one of Cleaver’s favourite apples, the Silken, due to its pale green colour. But by offering free samples, Cleaver won over the skeptics.
“And now Silken has become a big deal for us,” he said. “I handed them out for years, and now people come in right when we open and say, ‘When are you picking Silken?’”
You will not find Silken on grocery store shelves because they bruise easily and therefore are difficult to pack. That rarity, Cleaver said, is partly what motivates shoppers from Hamilton and beyond to flock to Simcoe within hours of seeing his farm post on social media about harvesting hard-to-find favourites.
“To me, that’s astounding. And it’s awesome,” Cleaver said.
He said heritage varieties like Tolman Sweet bring back memories for customers who perhaps last ate one decades ago, while other shoppers enjoy trying new flavours like Crimson Crisp or the eye-catching Hidden Rose, a mildly tart apple with pink flesh.
“Now we’re building new memories with these new varieties,” Cleaver said. “One of the goals is to get young people to eat apples.”
Apple varieties are chosen so they ripen in waves, allowing Cleaver and his 15-strong workforce from Jamaica — longtime employees Cleaver calls the backbone of the business — to keep up with the picking.
“The idea is we always have something fresh that’s coming off the tree,” Cleaver said.
This year’s harvest started with Ginger Gold apples around Aug. 20, which he said was a bit early on account of the prolonged spring and summer heat.
As a result, Cleaver expects to be done picking by Oct. 25, when usually the harvest would last into early November.
Apple connoisseurs who visit the roadside store this week will recognize Aurora Golden Gala, a Canadian-bred apple that debuted about 15 years ago with great fanfare — including a nationwide naming contest — but failed commercially once packers realized the new fruit was prone to bruising.
“I grow it because it’s one of my favourite apples,” said Cleaver, who is always on the lookout for new varieties to try.
“I scour tree nursery catalogues. It’s one of my favourite things in the wintertime,” he said.
Sometimes customers will recommend an apple and Cleaver will dutifully find and plant a pair of trees.
“I think that just creates a relationship with people who are coming out looking for them,” he said.
They are years away from bearing fruit, but Cleaver is looking forward to one day sampling apples from the trees he planted this year — a pair of new varieties called EverCrisp and Ludacrisp.
“You can’t beat the names,” he grinned. “Both of them are supposed to have incredible storage life and they harvest late, so that’ll extend my season.”
One variety he will stock as long as possible is Transparent, which grows on one lone tree in the orchard.
“My great-grandfather planted that tree,” said Cleaver, who as a child climbed up and tumbled out of its branches.
Today his own children — ages 10, eight and six — have a keen interest in apples.
“They love it,” he said, describing how they can already distinguish between apple varieties, point out disease spots, and taste-test fruit for sweetness and ripeness.
“Sometimes I can’t believe they’ve paid attention to the things I’ve said,” Cleaver said with a smile.
“They see my enthusiasm for it. I think there’s a future on my farm just from that.”
What’s in the orchard?
Norfolk County is one of Ontario’s top apple-producing regions, with dozens of varieties to try. Let’s take a stroll through the orchard and sample a few.
The apple harvest starts in late August with early varieties like Paula Red, Sunrise, Zestar and Ginger Gold. Each has a mildly tart flavour and can be enjoyed fresh or in sauce.
The Old Guard
Red Delicious was once the gold standard for sweetness, but the iconic red apple is now dismissed in many culinary corners for its bland flavour and spongy texture. Empire and McIntosh apples are still grown in abundance, but as slightly tart apples, their days in the sun may be numbered.
The Sweetest Thing
Sweet, crisp apples are all the rage these days, which makes Ambrosia, Gala and Honeycrisp perennial favourites to eat fresh or use in baking. Crispin and “super-sweet” Fuji are late-October options for those who prefer their apples naturally candied, while the more mellow Golden Delicious makes for a delicious applesauce.
A Bite of Nostalgia
Decades or even centuries old, heritage apples can evoke memories with every bite. Favourites grown locally in small quantities include Golden Russet, Tolman Sweet and Gravenstein.
Eyes on the Pies
Some enjoy eating Cortland, Spartan and Northern Spy apples raw, but these hardy apples more often make perfect pie filling. Tangy-sweet Jonagold or tart Idared can add complexity to a crisp or crumble.
Whether emerging naturally or bred in the orchard, new apple varieties come in every colour and taste profile. Shoppers can try Hidden Rose, Snowsweet, Crimson Crisp, Golden Smoothie, Silken and more. Marketing matters when naming new varieties, as seen in new arrivals EverCrisp and Ludacrisp.
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator