Hawk-eyed market-goers started spotting the first signs of fall this past week. And while Southern California isn't a hotbed of apple fever -- it simply doesn't get cold enough for trees that need a solid chill-induced hibernation in the winter -- LA does have the apple belt of Oak Glen just to the east and the orchards of Tehachapi to the north. The earliest apple varieties are already here, marking the beginning of a new season with the promise of cooler weather, fresh-pressed cider, and pound pies piled high with spiced filling. With the calendar now turned to September, it only gets better as the month ticks toward October.
The Gravenstein and the Honeycrisp are the first arrivals of the season and they couldn't be more different. Both are great eating out of hand, but the Gravenstein is distinctly tart and dense while the Honeycrisp is super juicy and sweet, with a light, crisp (of course) texture. The Honeycrisp has a great shelf life, keeping very well in cool, dry conditions and maintaining its namesake sweetness for months. The Gravenstein doesn't have any staying power, but as it's the better cooking apple, and preserve-minded purchasers can extend the season by canning up a Gravenstein apple butter or pie filling.
The Orin and the Granny Smith, two more great cooking classics, will be showing up in a couple of weeks. Flavor wise, they are on opposite ends of the spectrum -- the Granny Smith being almost lemony tart and chunky, and the Orin having an slightly tropical, pineapple-like sweetness that makes for a great apple sauce. No added sugar needed.
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And following them at the end of the month? The Arkansas Black, a compact and inky dark heirloom apple, thought to be a Winesap varietal, that has an amazing shelf life. The flavor is almost vanilla-like and only slightly tart, with a creamy off-yellow flesh. Once picked, the skin keeps darkening and becomes somewhat waxy as it ages, its vanilla-like flavor transforming into a more aromatic almond. It was once less commonly available, but its unique and complex flavor and coloring make it deservedly popular.
Mutsus, too, will be a late September arrival. Like the Arkansas Blacks, they have a long shelf life that transforms them from a tart, anise-like sweetness into a richer, more honeyed flavor. At any point they are great out of hand, but their density makes them another great cooking apple. They also pickle beautifully, complimenting the sour-spiciness of a light brine.