Market Watch: Glorious apples born of an imperfect California summer

Market Watch: Glorious apples born of an imperfect California summer
Gala apples grown by David Ha in Tehachapi, at the Palos Verdes farmers market. (David Karp)

Many are the virtues claimed for Southern California's climate, but a similarity to England's rarely ranks among them. Early Wednesday morning at the Santa Monica farmers market, however, the chill and dense fog were indeed London-like and emblematic of the mild temperatures this summer that have made for a banner year for Michael Cirone's apples, grown in See Canyon, near San Luis Obispo.

Apple varieties vary greatly in their climatic requirements but generally do best in areas with cold winters and warm summers. In much of California there's too little chill in winter and too much scorching heat in summer for best production, appearance and flavor, especially for many of the classic Eastern varieties like McIntosh and Winesap. Growers can get around this problem somewhat in areas that are at higher elevation, such as Julian and Tehachapi; at higher latitude, in Northern California; and close to the coast, like Watsonville and San Luis Obispo.

Apples flourish in See Canyon because they benefit from the moderating maritime influence, namely fogs in the morning and cool breezes in the afternoon, but even so, in a typical year many fruits get scalded by the sun, ripen too quickly and fall off the tree before reaching their best flavor. There's also a marketing issue: Many customers don't get hungry for apples until stone fruits are on the wane and there's a hint of chill in the air.

The previous three years of drought were tough on Cirone's apple trees, which are dry farmed, but this winter, finally, he had 40 inches of rain and sufficient chill, followed by a blessedly mild summer.

"I have as large and excellent a crop as I've ever had," he says. "The next two or three weeks are going to be the peak of abundance."

No variety has benefited more than Cox's Orange Pippin, England's favorite and most traditional apple, and the paradigm of high flavor in fruit. Raised in 1825 by Richard Cox, a retired brewer, from a seedling of Ribston Pippin, another great old apple, this variety has never been cultivated commercially to any great extent in the United States and especially not in California, where in a typical year the fruits have unattractively pale skin and corky, starchy, very tart flesh. Only a renegade like Cirone, who's daft enough to collect old pomological treatises and antique varieties, would even think of growing Cox here.

This year, however, the skin of many of the fruits is gorgeously streaked with red, orange and yellow; the yellowish-white flesh is crisp but tender and juicy; and the flavor, instantly recognizable to any aficionado, has the balance of sweetness and acidity, the intensity, and the heady aroma, floral with a hint of anise, of Cox at its best.

Cirone is also producing excellent specimens of the classic Esopus Spitzenburg — it's as fun to say the name as it is to eat the fruit — a variety that originated in the town of Esopus, in New York's Hudson Valley, in the late 18th century and has the reputation of having been Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple. Large and oblong to roundish, with dramatic scarlet skin stippled with yellowish specks, it has juicy, rich-flavored flesh and would have been much more widely cultivated in California, in historic and modern times, were it not for an intimidating list of horticultural drawbacks: It's a shy bearer, susceptible to the bacterial disease called fire blight, and exhibits bizarre tree architecture, making it tricky to prune.

For those who love intensely flavored apples — not crazy intense, like Ashmead's Kernel, but a well-balanced fruit with a complex, interesting flavor — a good Esopus is a special treat. With few exceptions, even the better modern apple varieties, such as Pink Lady and Jazz, may have a good balance of sweetness and acidity that gives them a chance to appeal to sophisticated palates but lack that finishing touch of intensity and complexity that would elevate them to the ranks of true noble fruits.

A variety doesn't have to be centuries old to be distinctive and delicious however; witness Hudson's Golden Gem, which originated in 1931 in a hedgerow in Talent, Ore., in an area better known for pears than apples. The fruit is a pure apple, not a hybrid, but it has a tawny, russeted skin, like a Bosc pear, and sweet, juicy, crisp flesh with a nutty, pear-like flavor. Premier specimens, which enjoyed a favored, sunny position on the tree, can have a slight reddish patina on the sunward cheek, almost like a piece of ancient glass.

Beyond these connoisseur's varieties, there's an apple for every taste — more than a dozen varieties, old and modern, sweet and tart — at Cirone's stand, which sells under the See Canyon banner at the Santa Monica Saturday (organic) and Wednesday farmers markets. Cirone also has a knack for displaying his fruit attractively and for selecting personable assistants who interact with the chefs and apple fans who throng his stand to create a lively scene.

Supermarkets and many farmers market vendors carry apples all year long, using controlled atmosphere storage and treatment with a compound called MCP to enhance firmness and crispness, at the expense of aroma; in contrast, Cirone uses neither of these methods, and his season lasts just the next several months, but his apples at their best are unmatched in eating quality.