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


How does an apple become famous?

In 2021 there would certainly be a PR firm involved and a social media campaign complete with foodie influencers and sexy images. Nothing of the kind existed in the 19th century, so how did far flung farmers and apple consumers get the word on the Next Big Thing? Newspapers were key, of course, for every county seat and most towns with more than 500 inhabitants had at least one or two weeklies, but to establish a reputation for excellence an apple needed a champion. For the Jonathan apple that champion was Jesse Buel (1778-1839).

The apple that became Jonathan was an Esopus Spitzenberg seedling planted on the Woodstock, New York farm of Philip Rick(s) (1745-1828), probably sometime around the turn of the 19th century. Ricks undoubtedly shared what he thought was a pretty good apple with family and friends, one of whom was Jonathan Haasbroek, godfather to one of Rick’s sons. Haasbroek, in turn, brought the apple to the attention of Buel in the early 1820s.

Buel was in the perfect position to turn a local favorite into a national phenomenon. A self-made man, he apprenticed to a printer at the age of 14. Though having had just six months of formal education he was apparently a quick study as he mastered his craft in four years instead of the usual seven. Securing release from his apprenticeship, he moved to New York, first to Manhattan, then to various towns in the Hudson Valley, eventually settling in Kingston where he likely became friends with Jonathan Haasbroek, another Kingston resident. He founded his first publication in 1797, the Northern Budget, followed by the Guardian, the Political Barometer, the Ulster Plebian, and the Argus. He was appointed Judge of the Court of Common Pleas for Ulster County, and, after moving to Albany in 1815, was chosen printer for the State of New York.

The success of his publications, the anti-Federalist Plebian in particular, had allowed him to create quite a nice life for himself and his wife Susan, accumulating considerable property both personal and real. It came as a bit of a shock to some then when, in 1821, he divested himself all his publishing interests and announced he was devoting his energies to agriculture and its improvement (including cidermaking). Though having little practical experience of farming, Buel had spent years thinking about it and studying treatises on the latest practices. “There is no business of life which so highly conduces to the prosperity of a nation, and to the happiness of its entire population, as that of cultivating the soil,” he wrote in 1839. 

Buel was right in the thick of the 19th century agricultural reform movement. Proponents advocated “scientific agriculture”, and the movement sparked the formation of countless agricultural societies and a robust agriculture-specific press. Northeastern farmers in particular were faced with a number of challenges. Soil fertility was declining, infestations of crop pests and diseases were worsening, and rising competition from midwestern grain farming was forcing a shift to new crops. Buel’s 85 acres in the Sandy Barrens west of Albany became his experimental nexus, and as he learned he wrote–articles, books, and letters to like-minded agriculturalists. He became the recording secretary of the New York State Board of Agriculture in 1822, a state assemblyman in 1823 where he served on the committee for agriculture, and a corresponding member of the Horticultural Society of London in 1825.

James Shull, 1911

The first published mention of the Jonathan was in a printed version of an address given by Buel to the New York Horticultural Society (not to be confused with the Horticultural Society of New York) in 1826. He was pushing for a comprehensive list of all available apple varieties and their various attributes that could help farmers make intelligent planting choices and included an example of such a list with “some of the most valuable Apples propagated in the Nurseries of this State.” Jonathan is number 39, though here it is called Ulster Seedling (new) and described as “less tart than Esopus Spitzenberg, fruit much desired.” He sent fruit to the Horticultural Society of Massachusetts in 1829 (“Jonathan, or New Spitzenbergh…superior to the old for eating”) and scions to the Horticultural Society of London in 1831. By the 1830s, pieces like the following were appearing in agricultural journals throughout the northeast, “From Judge Buel of Albany, the Jonathan Apple, a new and superior fruit, and esteemed in its season, by him and other good judges…as one of the most beautiful, excellent, and admired of all known…Skin thin, of a pale red, blended with faint yellow…Flesh very tender…Juice very abundant, rich, and highly flavored…Named in compliment to my friend Jonathan Harbrauck, Esq.” 

People took notice. By the end of the century it was grown in just about every state in the country, and newspaper ads trumpeted the arrival of Jonathan apple season.

So admired was the Jonathan that it became a staple in many 20th century apple breeding programs and a parent of popular apples such as Jonagold, Jonamac, and Idared. And though other modern apples have perhaps eclipsed it in sheer numbers grown, Jonathan apples are still important in the marketplace, appearing in stores around the country every fall like clockwork.

Though historically Jonathan was not considered an apple for cider, the handful of Jonathan varietal ciders that have appeared in the last few years are a testament to what is possible when interesting apples are grown with cidermaking in mind then thoughtfully treated in the cidery. The 2016 Tilted Shed is a case in point. The apples were harvested from large, mature, organic, dry-farmed trees, and in Sonoma County, CA that means essentially no water from about April until late October at the earliest. This stresses the tree, of course, and while reducing over-all productivity the fruit that is produced is typically richer and more concentrated in flavor. The must was treated in the traditional manner of a fine champagne–fermented and aged in neutral, French oak barrels, bottled and kept on tirage for nine months, then riddled and disgorged. When it was released in 2018 its flavor was full of rich, ripe fruits. By early 2021 the cider had matured, taking on flavors of roasted hazelnuts and cardamon, a fine example of how a well-made cider with the right structural components can age gracefully.

All these examples share moderate acids and a variety of ripe fruit flavors, perhaps because all the apples in these ciders were grown in the warmer arid west. It would be most interesting to try a Jonathan cider made from apples grown in a colder, wetter place. 

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; orange marmalade, mandarin, pineapple, ripe cantaloupe, lemon juice, brioche, pear skin, cardamon, roasted hazelnuts, almond; sparkling; 2016; 9.5% ABV

Blindwood Cider, San Leandro, CA – dry; baked apple, baked pear, orange zest, cinnamon, vanilla, orange juice; sparkling; 2018; 7.9% ABV (dry-farmed apples grown in Sonoma County, CA)

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – semi-dry; ripe apple, quince, banana, pineapple; sparkling; 2017; 7.4% ABV (apples grown on Colorado’s western slope)

Horse and Plow Winery, Sebastopol, CA – dry; melon, ripe apple, pear, nectarine, mango, orange; sparkling; 2018; 8% ABV

Ellen I. Schutt, 1913

For the consummate apple nerds among you, there is one other story about the Jonathan apple that you should know. 

In 1804, a woman named Rachel Negus married a Jonathan Higley, Jr. moving with him from Connecticut to Windsor Township in the newly admitted state of Ohio. The Higleys were one of the first families to settle in the area, which never did develop much. At the end of the 19th century, at the height of the Jonathan’s popularity, one of the Higley’s descendants wrote a book, The Higleys and their ancestry: an old colonial family, that insisted that Rachel Higley was the apple’s true originator.

As the story went, Rachel Higley had gathered seeds from a cider mill as she left Connecticut and planted them near her new home. The result was an apple called Jonathan, and the author was certain that it was this apple that had swept the country. “The original fruit bearing this name is claimed by a horticulturist in Central New York, at much later dates,” the author wrote. “The writer, however, has conversed with a number of aged persons who clearly [my emphasis] recalled the fact that Mrs. Rachel (Negus) Higley gave her first apples, in 1811, her husband’s given name.”

It is perfectly plausible that Rachel Higley grew an apple that she named for her husband and possible that the locals thought highly of it. Windsor Township was, however, at the edge of the Western frontier. There wasn’t much there then, and there isn’t much there now–no newspaper, no railroad, not even much of a town. The Ohio State Pomological Society didn’t exist before 1847. So who would have been this apple’s champion? Who would have introduced it to a wider world and ensured its place in orchards across the country? The Higley Jonathan had no Jesse Buel. Though it might well have been the choice variety the Higley heir believed it to be, it is just one of the many the small-town apples lost to history.

Porter’s Perfection

This month we turn our eyes to England and an apple that has become a classic, Porter’s Perfection. The Porter in its name is one Charles Porter (1844 – 1932) of East Lambrook, a small village in the Kingsbury Episcopi parish of the southwestern county of Somerset. 

There have been Porters living in Kingsbury Episcopi since at least the mid-16th century, and probably even before that. They were rural folk, laborers mostly. Charles’ father, James, was an innkeeper, owning the Buffalo Inn in East Lambrook from at least 1834. Briefly jailed in 1842 on a smuggling charge, James died of liver failure when Charles was but 15 months old, leaving his widow Jane with four children under the age of 11. She supported her young family as a glover, an important cottage industry in mid-19th century rural Somerset. Money would probably have been tight, so by their mid-teens, both Charles and his older brother William had left school and gotten jobs.

Charles started his working life as a gardener in various parts of Somerset, though never too far from home. By 1881 he was married with two children and had the wherewithal to be farming 20 acres in East Lambrook. In keeping with farms of this time and place, it was probably a mixture of cropland, livestock, and orchards, mostly apples. Like a number of his neighbors, he had a space in one orchard that he used as a nursery, a place to start seedling trees that could be used for rootstock, though one might become a useful apple in its own right. And, like his neighbors, he made cider. That’s who was making most of the cider in England in those days, small farmers with mixed farms, using both equipment and techniques that had for the most part not changed in centuries. However, the scientific rigor of the agricultural revolution was about to hit.

A concerted push for agricultural improvement was one of the defining features of the 19th century. People were developing new breeds of livestock and crop varieties, finding new ways to enhance soil fertility and combat pests and diseases, and pioneering the mechanization and improvement of agricultural equipment. With the exception of the innovative orchard work of Thomas Andrew Knight in Herefordshire, though, research into improving cider lagged until the 1890s. Cider, which had once graced the tables of lords and ladies, was now often seen as a mixed bag, some clean and good but much more deeply flawed. Such rough cider might be acceptable to a farm laborer during harvest, but hadn’t much of a market otherwise.

Robert Neville Granville, a cider enthusiast and engineer living near Glastonbury, got the improvement ball rolling in 1891. In 1893 the trustees of the Bath and West Society, founded in the late 18th century to advance local agriculture, gave Neville Granville the financial support to hire professional chemist Fredrick Lloyd. They also started a cider competition with the stated goal of encouraging the improvement of cider by awarding cash prizes to the best that met certain minimum standards.  (Very few prizes were awarded that first year, but in subsequent years Charles Porter’s neighbor Richard W. Scott entered and won often.) Lloyd began analyzing juice samples, making and analyzing single variety ciders, studying yeasts, and evaluating production methods from harvest to packaging. Each year he wrote a detailed report for the annual Journal of the Bath and West Society and Southern Counties Association.

Within a decade this work had caught the attention of the Board of Agriculture, which was always on the look out for ways to build markets and add to farmer revenue. With monies from the Board, as well as from various apple-growing counties in the west of England, a farm suitable for experimentation was identified at Long Ashton near Bristol, and the National Fruit and Cider Institute was launched. This hugely influential body continued to conduct research on cider for the next 80 years, merging with the University of Bristol in 1912 and being renamed the Long Ashton Research Station. Lloyd acted as the institute’s head until 1905, then was succeeded by Bertie T. P. Barker.

It is here that our story (finally) loops back to Porter’s Perfection, for Barker is the one that brought the apple to public notice after learning of it much by accident. He was searching for a supply of Cap of Liberty apples for that year’s experiments when Charles Porter pointed out a seedling tree, growing in one of his orchards, that seemed to be similar. Barker gave it a try, and, he wrote later “the cider made from it proved to be of such excellent quality that each year since that time…the fruit has been procured for trial purposes…the results have on the whole been so good that it is justifiable to regard the variety as one of the best kinds yet tested for the production of a medium brisk [by which he meant acidic], light, bottling cider.” Barker named it Porter’s Perfection as it was Charles Porter “to whom is really due the credit of having …recognized its merit.” The institute had by this time (1912) been producing young Porter’s Perfection trees and was poised to provide them to farmers ready to try this new apple that but for chance might have lived out its life unknown. It remains popular to this day, and the Porter family is still growing it, and others varieties, supplying fruit to Perry’s Cider in nearby Dowlish Wake.

It’s a funny little apple, yellow-green with stripes of red and a thick fleshy stem. Its most remarkable feature, though, is its regular tendency to form fused fruits, usually in twos, but sometimes three or more, hence its other name, Clusters. When walking through an orchard it is hard to imagine mistaking this variety for anything else. 

The collection of Porter’s Perfection ciders I tasted through recently–half sparkling, half still–was fascinating, to say the least. None were particularly aromatic, light to medium in their intensity. Not every renowned fermentable fruit is particularly fragrant, of course, Chardonnay grapes being a perfect example. All possessed notable acid, each showing more than medium briskness, to use Barker’s term, and plenty of tannin, though their colors ranged from yellow to gold to amber.

Where they diverged the most was in their aromas/flavors. Most had some fruit character, tending toward the tart parts like skin or peel, the exception being the cider from Haykin Family Cider, which was rather riper and a little floral. Two, from Eve’s and South Hill, were distinctly savory. What was most interesting to me, however, was how several of the older examples were beginning to develop the tertiary flavors we often associate with aged wines, such as cedar and spice. Certainly these ciders have the acid/tannin structure that suggests they’d age well. It would be worth laying in a few bottles to try again in a year, or two years, or perhaps several more. 

Here’s the list:

Bauman’s Cider Company, Gervais, OR – lemon, lemon peel, pear skin, gooseberry, twigs, granite, wood; sparkling; 2019; 6.9% ABV

Eastman’s Forgotten Ciders, Wheeler, MI – plum skin, tart apple skin, blood orange peel, gooseberry, cedar, sawdust; sparkling; 2015; 6.3% ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – lemon juice, blood orange juice, guava, ripe apple, ripe pear, rose petals; sparkling; 2018; 7.7 % ABV (the apples used were grown in Yakima, WA)

Eve’s Cidery, Van Etten, NY – orange peel, pear, gooseberry, brine, soy sauce, clove, cedar; still; 2017; 8.5% ABV

South Hill Cider, Ithaca, NY – apple skin, gooseberry, green plum, grass, brine; still; 2019; 8.4% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – grapefruit peel, pear skin, green plum, gooseberry, clove, cedar; still; 2017; 7.4% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – tart orange, apple skin, gooseberry, grapefruit peel, clove, twigs; still; 2019; 7.5% ABV