Local Values

The Instagram post wasn’t up long, but long enough for the poster, a newish local wine company, to crow about how “sustainable” they were because they were planning on composting the still productive apple trees they ripped out of the ground so that they could plant yet more Pinot Noir. As opposed to what? Burning them? In the midst of a fire-prone area in the middle of an historic drought? Their acolyte fans were thrilled, adding the suggestion that apple wood was great for smoking bacon. A savvy advocate of more agricultural diversity not less, and a cider drinker, called them on it though, rallying a host of like-minded others to join the fray. I doubt it changed any minds, but it was satisfying to see that post vanish within a matter of hours.

I get that sometimes agricultural land needs to be repurposed. Times and tastes change, and farmers have to change, too, or get into some other line of work. Farmers need to be a pragmatic bunch; they have mortgages, medical bills, and kids to put through school just like the rest of us. They can’t just grow what they happen to like the best. Or, they can, but they may well pay an untenable financial price for it. In the end, they’ve got to grow something that we, the (sometimes fickle) public, want to buy.

As consumers, we are not always aware of the impact that our buying choices have on the folks that produce what we eat and drink. But whether we acknowledge it or not, there is a direct relationship between what we put in our shopping carts and livelihood of the person that made it or grew it. Here in Sonoma County, as in many other places, we do sort of get that for we have embraced the idea of farm-to-table restaurants and eating local. But doesn’t it then follow that we should embrace drinking local, too? That’s pretty easy to do here with wine, or course, but it turns out that it’s just as easy to do with cider if you’re willing to be even a little curious.

The last time I counted there were roughly 20 companies making cider in Sonoma County and the three counties that touch its borders. I’m guessing there are a few more by now. All of them use locally grown apples in at least some of their ciders. I’m willing to bet wherever you are you’ve got a local cidermaker or two, too. Are they using local fruit or trucking in random bulk juice from somewhere else? If you’re at a tasting room you can ask, of course. If not you might be able to tell by reading the label, and if it isn’t clear, ask someone at the store or restaurant that is carrying it. And if they don’t know, well, shouldn’t they? 

By picking a locally made cider, made from locally-grown apples, you are not just supporting a business run by one of your neighbors, though that’s a fabulous thing in and of itself. You are creating even bigger ripples through the local economy and showing that you value diversity–not just social diversity but also agricultural diversity. Which means a farmer will have just a little more encouragement to keep her apple trees in the ground.

Arkansas Black

There were trees as far as the eye could see, boughs heavy with apples ripening in the golden October sun–1.6 million trees growing on an estimated 40,000 acres at one count, 2.5 million a decade later. You would be forgiven for thinking this was New York’s Hudson Valley or southeastern Washington, but you would be wrong. In the year 1900 the place with more apple trees than anywhere in the United States was Benton County, Arkansas. In the year 1900 the place with more apple trees than anywhere in the United States was Benton County, Arkansas. Number two was Washington County just to the south. Now known more as the home of the international chain Walmart, Benton County, and it’s capital Bentonville, was once a powerhouse of apple growing and apple drying, as well as cider and apple butter. It was also the birthplace of Arkansas Black.

John Braithwaite (1811-1890) is the man credited with planting the seed that became Arkansas Black according to most of the sources one might trust to get this sort of thing right (Lee Calhoun, author of Old Southern Apples, for one). Just when this Englishman arrived in North America has been lost to history, but by the early 1840s he was in northwestern Arkansas, married to the widow Sarah (aka Sally) Dickson McCurdy (1819-1892), and starting a family. His choice of brides was a good one for the Dicksons were people of note, both in the new state of Arkansas (admitted to the union in 1836) and their home state of Tennessee. 

The head of the Dickson family was Joseph Dickson (1745-1825), captain in the Continental Army, rising to general by the Revolution’s end, and Sarah’s grandfather. A good example of the new American self-made man, he rose from obscurity to some prominence with his command of troops in the Battle of Kings Mountain in North Carolina. He went on to become a landowner and an important statesman, member of both the State Senate and the commission that founded the University of North Carolina. Serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1799 to 1801, his full-throated support of Thomas Jefferson gave Jefferson the Presidency in the tied election of 1800. Dickson would not have known at the time, or probably cared, but his support of Jefferson set up the circumstances that led Braithwaite to plant the fateful apple seed.

It started with the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of lands east of the Mississippi River from the French, which doubled the size of the newly-independent United States. It apparently didn’t concern the colonial powers involved (the Spanish were in on the discussions, too) that the land in question didn’t actually “belong” to the French but to others, the Tsalaguetiyi (Cherokee), Osage, and Kiickapoi (Kickapoo), just a few of the many peoples that had been living there for uncounted years before Europeans arrived. The deal was completed in 1803, the same year that Dickson moved himself, his family, and his 13 or so slaves to Rutherford County, Tennessee and began to accumulate expansive agricultural landholdings there, as well continuing his political career in the state House of Representatives (1807 – 1811).

After the French and Indian War of 1763, the British government had agreed that no new British settlements would be made east of the Appalachian Mountains, though that didn’t really stop people from moving there anyway. Now that there was a new government in charge it was full speed ahead for westward expansion, a key element in Jefferson’s vision of creating a prosperous yeoman-farmer underclass. It took some years to carve this enormous piece of land into more administratively manageable chunks, pushing out the native people by war or treaty along the way. Arkansas Territory was created in 1819. Sarah Dickson moved there with her first husband, Allen McCurdy (1807-1837), in the mid-1830s. (There were some 30,000 settlers and slaves counted in the 1830 territorial census.) Her father Robert and several uncles, brothers, and cousins soon followed suit, as did John Braithwaite.

We don’t know just why they chose Arkansas’ largely undeveloped northwest corner, but it was a common destination for people moving out of Tennessee. Perhaps it was just a longing to start someplace new, out from under the eye of a powerful patriarch. Perhaps it was the availability of virgin land. The Ozark Plateau, with its rough, hilly terrain, was unsuited to large scale cotton plantations, but good for orchards. The altitude kept the nights cool, and there was plenty of water. According to J.B. Lawton in his History of the Fruit Industry of Arkansas (1901), one of the Dicksons planted an orchard just outside of Bentonville (called Osage at the time) in 1836. John Braithwaite planted a nursery nearby in 1843 and was selling grafted trees to new settlers by the following year. This may have been on land owned by his father-in-law, Robert, as Braithwaite was only granted land of his own starting in the 1850s. Tree sales may also have been more of a side business, as he listed his occupation as stone mason in the 1850 census. The area was so cut off from most regular supplies that people were primarily planting to feed their families. The commercial fruit industry did not start up in earnest until the arrival of the railroad in 1881, finally giving the area easy access to nationwide markets.

Lawton writes that Arkansas Black was one of the ungrafted seedlings in Braithwaite’s 1843 nursery. James Alfred Marks, in a thesis paper written in 1911, says he was told by a Mr. Goree that Braithwaite discovered this seedling had fruited in 1865 when he returned home after a four year absence, a date supported by one of the many Dickson cousins (John Alvin) when interviewed around 1886. Braithwaite seems to have chosen to sit out the Civil War elsewhere (there are no Braithwaites listed as Confederate soldiers, though there are several Dicksons). That would seem to have been a very sensible decision since Bentonville was largely destroyed during the conflict as first one side then the other moved through burning buildings as they went.

From Dewey’s Specimen Book – 1870

Not a prolific bearer and prone to scab (though resistant to cedar rust) Arkansas Black was not an immediate hit with every pomologist that wrote about it. It does, however, have two attributes that has kept it in orchards from New York to Oregon. First is its rich, dark red, almost black color. S.A. Beech, in The Apples of New York (1905), describes it as “one of the most beautiful apples”. It also has extraordinary keeping ability, up to three and a half months in ordinary storage. The apple’s portrait appeared as early as 1870 in one of the specimen books created by D.M. Dewey for the nursery trade. It was one of the main varieties grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley by 1919, and though it does not command the acreage that it once did, Arkansas Black continues to be grown to some extent across the U.S.

It may be Arkansas Black’s heirloom status that prompts cidermakers to ferment it. One can most often find it in blends, though there are a handful of single variety ciders out there as well. It was a challenge to find a common theme in the ones I tried, though all were largely devoid of tannin (think crisp white wine here). Some had pronounced aromas and some were quite restrained; some had significant acidity, some not so much. Is this a reflection of terroir or cidermaker choices in the cellar?

Albemarle Ciderworks, North Garden, VA – lime zest, guava, honey, white flowers, peach, and apricot; sparkling; 2016; 7% ABV

Botanist and Barrel, Cedar Grove, NC – pear skin, green plum skin, gooseberry, lime zest, and lemongrass; sparkling; 2019; 7.5% ABV

Pen Druid Fermentation, Sperryville, VA – green pear, pear skin, peach, lime juice, quince, mint, and eucalyptus; sparkling; 2019; 6.3% ABV

Gopher Glen, San Luis Obispo, CA – quince, guava, mandarin orange, tart apple skin, and pear juice; sparkling; 2018; 8% ABV

Ashmead’s Kernel

Some stories don’t come that easily, and the Ashmead’s Kernel story turned out to be one of them. 

Part of the problem is its documented history, or lack thereof. Uncovering the history of a centuries old apple always has challenges. Contemporary documents that reference it may be lost, or may have never existed. Diary entries that read “the apple seed that I planted 10 years ago in the back corner of the garden has turned out to bear quite tasty fruit” are few and far between. Once the apple has gotten some notice, those who write about it are often not very good at chronicling its origins except in the barest of ways. 

The tree that became Ashmead’s Kernel is believed to have been planted early in the 18th century. A hundred years later, pomological writers attributed its origin to a Mr. Ashmead of Gloucester, a Dr. Ashmead of the Gloucestershire village of Ashmeads, or, splitting the difference, a Dr. Ashmead of Gloucester, “an eminent physician of that city,” an embellishment added by the writer, Robert Hogg. Finally, in 1861, the Reverend Samuel Lysons gives Ashmead a first name, “William Ashmead, some time town clerk of this city [Gloucester], who planted the first tree near Clarence street,” mentioned in a lecture on the topic of “What has our county done?” Helpful, but not much for there were any number of Ashmeads owning lands and living in and around Gloucester in the 18th century, several of whom were named William. Most of the folks that care about such things in Gloucestershire today believe the William was an attorney and as such may have been a doctor of laws, which would account for the honorific. This William Ashmead was born in 1721, married Mary Jones in 1759, and died, childless, in 1782. Not much story there.

The English have a reputation for being a little gardening mad, and it was more or less during the reign of George III (1760-1801) that this madness started to take off. New and exotic plants were flooding into England from far flung spots around the globe, brought back by explorers, colonizers, and scientists. These thousands of discoveries were fueling new ways of thinking about the natural world, including how it could be organized and systematized, and there were any number of competing systems. The one we still use today, with some modification, was created by a Swede named Carl von Linné. We know him by his latinized name, Linnaeus. Popular books explaining the Linnaean system began to appear in England in the 1760s sparking an ardent interest in botanizing, meandering walks through the fields with guide in hand followed by exclamations of delight in finding a particular specimen. It was the perfect pastime for the well-bred young lady who might, if she had the inclination, pause to make a sketch that could later be turned into a watercolor.

One of those popular books was written by Gloucester nurseryman James Wheeler in 1763 around the same time that he began growing and selling trees grafted from Ashmead’s apple. Founding his nursery in 1750, Wheeler was part of the expansion of nurseries outside of London that catered to the middle class, those that had caught the gardening bug and wanted both plants and fruit trees for their gardens. He clearly had connections with the London nurseries, which may be where he learned of Linnaeus, for he sent Ashmead’s Kernel scions to the earliest and arguably the best known nursery, Brompton Park, in the 1780s. Without Wheeler’s intervention, Ashmead’s Kernel may well have ended its days as just another obscure local apple.

After Brompton Park it entered the ever expanding collection of the Horticultural Society of London assembled at Kew Gardens (it appears in their 1826 listing of varieties) and started to make its way out into the wider world. A Mr. Holbert’s Ashmead’s Kernels won the dessert apple prize at the Vale of Evesham Horticultural and Floral Society competition in 1834. They were offered for sale by name in Manchester in 1835. A notice placed by J. Cheslin Wheeler (on of James’ sons) in a January 1849 issue of The Gardeners’ Chronicle announcing the availability of “True Ashmead’s Kernel” trees suggests that by then the unscrupulous were passing off inferior varieties as the original from Gloucester. It is tempting to think that it came to the US in one of the exchanges made between the agriculturalist Jesse Buel and the Horticultural Society of London, for it was being grown in New York by 1851. Still, Ashmead’s Kernel never quite caught on in America the way it did in England, maybe because of a bias toward American varieties. It is seems to be more widely grown now.

It isn’t a particularly large apple. Its ground color is green with a yellow overcast and flushes of orange or red, sometimes in stripes, on its sun side. It is always russeted to some degree, but its shape can vary considerably from round to oblate to conical. As to flavor, Ashmead’s Kernel has very passionate fans. One of the best descriptions comes from a talk on apples given by journalist and food writer P. Morton Shand on BBC Radio in 1944. “What an apple, what suavity of aroma” he said. “Its initial Madeira-like mellowness of flavour overlies a deeper honeyed nuttiness, crisply sweet not sugar sweet, but the succulence of a well devilled marrow bone. Surely no apple of greater distinction or more perfect balance can ever have been raised anywhere on earth.”

How, then, does this well loved dessert apple behave when fermented? The five we tried (I was joined by former Golden State Cider cidermaker Tim Godfrey) were all pretty tasty with a healthy dose of acid, no discernible tannin, and body that varied from some to a lot. Lime or some other tart citrus seemed to be the common flavor theme. What intrigued us the most, though, were the ones that were a little bit resiny, with aromas and flavors of fir or juniper. Most interesting.

Sundström Cider, Hudson Valley, NY – dry; fir tips, juniper, ripe pear, lime juice, lychee, grapefruit; still; 2016; 10% ABV

South Hill Ciders, Ithaca, NY – dry; grapefruit peel, fir tips, tropical fruit, citrus; sparkling; 2019; 10.7% ABV

Chatter Creek Cider, Seattle, WA – dry; lime zest, mint, menthol, juniper, plum skin, green apricot, citrus pith, green herbs; sparkling; 2019; 9.5% ABV 

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – semi-sweet; limeade, plum skin, mango, lemon juice and pith, grapefruit juice, cranberry; sparkling; 2017; 7.3% ABV (apples grown in Yakima, WA)

Wise Bird Cider Co., Lexington, KY – dry; green plum skin, pear skin, lemon juice, just ripe peach, grapefruit, lychee, green leaf; sparkling; 2019; 8.4% ABV