Photo and story by Donna Iverson
Every fall, I develop apple nostalgia.
All this goes back to my childhood and the family farm in Whitehall, Michigan. In a rundown orchard, my grandfather grew two Apple varieties, Jonathan and Northern Spy. Always a big fan of children's detective novels, like Nancy Drew, I figured Northern Spy was my signature apple. And I liked a sour apple, so I picked them before they ripened. ..even though I was warned it would cause stomach aches ..which it never did.
I lost touch with Northern Spy during my adult life, when I lived in Vermont. There, I bought my most of my apples at the supermarket, usually choosing Granny Smith, which like Northern Spy is an heirloom variety.
When I retired and moved back to Michigan, I started buying my produce at local farmers markets, and rediscovered Northern Spy.
"Spies for pies," said the woman customer standing next to me at Knudson's Farm stand out of Ravenna. I wasn't planning on making a pie, I just wanted to taste that favorite apple from my childhood.
Back then, I would wander through the "back 40", searching for wild edibles. I considered the orchard to be a source of wild edibles, because as far as I could see my grandfather did absolutely nothing in the way of orchard care . No pruning, no pesticides, no checking for infestations, no harvesting, .....he seemed to give it no attention whatsoever.
But the apples grew in spite of him.. As did the large garden down by the chicken coop, which had as many weeds as vegetable plants.
Fresh from the farmers' market, I brought my apple home and took a bite ..yup, that was the taste I remember, although a little sweeter because it was ripe. Almost immediately, that bite raised questions?
Was Northern Spy a Michigan native apple, I wondered? An online search revealed that Northern Spy originated in upstate New York circa 1800 and is grown today mostly in New York, Michigan and Ontario. It is definitely a northern cold loving apple whose tree produces fruit in October and November. At one time, it was the third most popular apple in the country.
This heirloom apple remains extremely popular along with MacIntosh in this part of Michigan, according to farmer Dave England who grows them in his orchard in Mears. While American taste is trending toward sweeter apple varieties, Northern Spy is holding its own, England said. It's prized for its flavor, not its looks. What it lacks in appearance, it makes up in taste, with a balance of sweet and acidic undertones.
Although the Northern Spy is sometimes misshaped and bruised due to thin skin, it remains the first choice of many people, according to England. Give me a bruised heirloom apple over a modern hybrid any day, said the customer behind me, waiting to purchase this locally grown, open-pollinated variety.
An heirloom apple is one that was grown in the early parts of human history and genetically distinct from commercial varieties, which are bred for bright color, sweetness and ship-ability. Other heritage apples that are grown in Michigan include Macoun, Cortland, Empire, and Baldwin.
Apples are in fact the state's largest fruit crop, and Michigan is the third largest producer of apples in the country, behind Washington and New York. The average US orchard size is about 50 acres. An apple tree can live around 100 years and in colonial times, almost every farm had at least one apple tree.
The Northern Spy is winter hardy and stores well, for the entire winter, in fact. It is especially high in Vitamin C, and is popular for making pies and cider. So if you should run across Northern Spy at the market, give it a taste test and see if this antique apple wins you over.