In Praise of Heirloom Apples: the Golden Russet


Dating to 1849, the Golden Russet is a real New York apple.

Everyone has a favorite apple or two. Kids love Red Delicious for their sugary flavor and bright red color. Gourmands crave Granny Smiths because they have hard, tart flesh and can be used to make crisps that retain their apple-y texture. The last few years, apple admirers have gone gaga over Honeycrisp, which, via careful crossing, have a sugar level way higher than most other apples — but you pay about a dollar a pound extra, and part of that is just for hype. Me, I’d rather chew on an heirloom, for the exotic and old-fashioned flavor.

The Golden Russet, cut open

Writing in his wonderful book Apples (1998), Frank Browning describes visiting Georgia in the former Soviet Union to look for the original apple. Climbing up and down the Caucasus Mountains, he discovers several candidates for the very first. Most of them he terms “spitters,” meaning you take a bite, make a face, and then spit it out. Other ancient varieties he discovered were simply delectable, with subtle flavors you rarely find in apples here.

Well, not so rarely if you buy heirloom varieties at the farmers’ markets. Still, there’s no such thing as a purebred apple, and even the most ancient of cultivars has resulted from hybridization in the remote past, often in the 19th century around the time of Luther Burbank, or earlier when Johnny Appleseed spread some of his favorite apples — which were themselves contemporary hybrids — around the Midwest.

New York is naturally rich in heirloom varieties, since apples have been widely cultivated here since colonial times, and older varieties still exist, sometimes only in wild form, as their commercial desirability dimmed with the years.

While modern botanists seek to make apples sweeter, shapelier, and more beautifully colored, heirlooms stand in sharp contrast. They’re often gnarled and brown, and have hard textures, with flavors that run more to nuts and hard liquor than table sugar and mass-produced perfumes.

The Golden Russet is a good example. Bite into it and pecans and maple syrup fill your mouth, and even, if you concentrate really hard, maybe the soil that the apple grew in on a sunny hillside near Rome, New York, or somewhere in the Hudson Valley. “Russet” refers to the brown splotches on the apple, producing a certain leatheriness to the skin. The flesh is hard; and hence it takes some chewing to eat, and resounds with a sharp “crack” when you bite into it. The flavor is delicate, too, the opposite of the newfangled Honeycrisp, which is a current farmers’ market favorite that displays the modern objectives of hybridization.

So, enjoy an heirloom apple. Seek them out. Here are some more we’ve found in area markets.


Cox’s Orange Pippin is an apple hybridized in England in 1830. Like all heirlooms commercially available, it reflects the taste in apples contemporary at that time.

The Margil dates to the late 1700s, when it was a cross between a Jonathan and a Macoun apple. It’s known for its fruity taste, and, writing in 1884, Robert Hogg wrote: “One of the finest dessert apples, a rival of the Ribston Pippin, excelling it in juiciness, and being of a better size for dessert.”

The Northern Spy was an apple developed in New York State in 1800. Firm and tart, even today it’s regarded as a perfect baking apple.

The Newton Pippin has some of the same ancestors as Cox’s Orange Pippin, but dates to the mid-1700s. It was reputedly George Washington’s favorite.

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