It's like the fateful proclamation of a cynical high school guidance counselor: You are one type of person or you are another. At least when it comes to apples. According to Amy Halsey of the Milk Pail Farm and Orchard on Highway 27 in Water Mill, New York, customers either want their apples crisp and don't care whether they are sweet or tart—or they are willing to forgo texture in favor of their favorite flavor.
I think I'm the crisp apple eater, since when I look back on all my happy apple memories, they have less to do with the particular flavor (although that's part of the fondness) than with the clean break of skin and flesh with the first bite. In this sense, it's no wonder that Fujis—one of the best keepers the Halseys grow—happen to be my household's regular apple from November to March, and I pick up a five-pound bag every week or so.
This texture-versus-flavor split in the population is all the more relevant since we're coming to the end of the life of most apples in the Northeast, which can be kept in cold storage, but only for so long. At the Milk Pail farm stand, where the cool air is still thick with the smell of apple juice, things are getting sparse. But not as sparse at one would think, considering that there are no other farms open on the South Fork of Long Island and the Halseys picked their last apples nearly six months ago.
A chart behind the counter lists the available fruit based on sugar content (above), including Sweet (Fuji and Red Delicious), Semi Sweet (Empire), Sweet Tart (Gold Rush), Semi Tart (Pink Lady), and Tart (Braeburn). (Any day now Braeburn will fall off the list.) Growing these later varieties have historically helped the Halseys extend their season, so that they didn't just have to depend on cider, sauce, and their best-selling apple pies (baked at Breadzilla in Wainscott but only available at the Milk Pail). And while upstate New York is better known for its apple bounty, Long Island's more temperate maritime climate allows the Halseys to raise late-maturing varieties that wouldn't survive fall freezes farther north and that you won't find at city apple stands.
"Apples are alive," said farm patriarch John Halsey, who is just back from a two-day commercial tree fruit class in Kingston. "They are respiring just like you and me. What really does in an apple is when it gets soft. The starches turn to sugar and they get softer." In Kingston, he learned about a new product called SmartFresh than can be used on stored apples to increase their firm-time dramatically. (Statistics on national usage of SmartFresh aren't widely available, although the buzz on fruit industry websites implies its destined to be a big seller.)
Always open to innovation, Halsey was intrigued but not really sold. Besides, his daughter Amy said, "We want to run out of Jonahgold because we have Fujis and Pink Ladies to sell. It's time to move on."
Like its neighbors, the farm was a potato and dairy operation before John and his wife, Evelyn, planted their first orchard a few decades ago. But the Halseys learned early in their apple careers that customers liked variety, and they now grow 26 varieties of apples and four types of pears, as well as recent forays into peaches and cherries. The Halseys were the first farm in New York to try Fujis on a large scale. And in search of the next great apple, John is currently planting ten trees each of 15 new Cornell apple varieties that don't even have names yet. (The stand also carries a couple aged Vermont cheddars, addictive cider doughnuts, honey, and, this time of year, potted helleborus and amaryllis that are holdovers from Christmastime sales from Amy's flower business.)
Its wide selection became its advantage. "In the supermarket, we only saw two or three varieties," John said, "so if we offer something they don't, we're apt to have an edge. They still don't allow you to taste 'em in the supermarket, and I hope that never changes."
So, the next time you grab some spring apples at the farmers' market, remember that the apple you eat is heading toward its end. Fujis and Gold Rush may last well into spring and even early summer. But, by then, there's strawberries and rhubarb and eventually cherries and endless fantasies of future harvests.