It's not often that a pile of apples in a cardboard box turns heads. But if you're talking about the Arkansas Black, an 1800s heirloom from its namesake state, you'll be forgiven. Its mahogany to inky deep plum coloring makes it a striking standout at the markets this time of year. But don't come to this apple looking for a manicured Honeycrisp-like explosion of flavor. The intense drama of the Arkansas Black is only skin deep. But its subtle flavor profile doesn't keep it from being one of the most popular apples this time of year.
Biting into an Arkansas Black reveals a lovely contrast: dark oily skin coating a pale yellow flesh. And it's that heavy skin that made the apple so popular in pre-refrigeration times, as it is responsible for the apple's lengthy shelf life. A freshly picked Arkansas Black will have crisp and slightly grainy flesh, full of juice, only slightly sweet with a little tang, and traces of vanilla and almonds.
Let these apples sit in cold storage, however, and they transform. Months later (as late as March assuming you can wait that long), the flesh softens almost like a pear, but without the juice. The tartness nearly disappears and those vanilla and almond notes start to dominate. The apple comes off the tree pretty dark, but over time the fruit asserts its name, becoming a gothic mimic of something Sleeping Beauty might be foolish enough to bite.
The Arkansas Black can handle a bit of tumbling, but nonetheless choose fruits with firm flesh, no soft spots, and no nicks or holes. If you are planning to store them for a spell, pick fruits with stems still attached as this helps them keep longer. And they will keep for a long time — months if necessary — but you'll need to store them in a cool and dark place. They also cook exceptionally well. The thick skin makes them a little challenging to eat out of hand without a little help, in which case a pocket knife and a napkin will do nicely.