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Our State Knows Best: Apples

mountain apples

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.


When the crisp air of autumn creeps in, we head west to fill our baskets at apple orchards and roadside stands — and dream of warm apple pies, sweet cider, and cinnamon-apple doughnuts. From the crunch of a Pink Lady to the mild sweetness of a Red Delicious to the tartness of a Granny Smith, apples plucked right off the branch in a North Carolina orchard are ripe with flavor that you just can’t find anywhere else.

“One time, at the Apple Festival in Hendersonville, I met someone who tried a local Gala, and they couldn’t believe how good it was — they’d only had a Gala from a grocery store,” says Tony Haywood, apple specialist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. “I told them that the North Carolina flavor is what makes it so good. They went up the street to a stand and ended up buying a whole bag of local Galas to take home!”

We talked to Haywood and two other experts — Angela Shur, owner of Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies in Mount Airy, and Tom Brown, heritage apple expert and collector — about their tips for making the most delicious apple pie, how to find heirloom varieties, and the best places to pick them.

Our experts

Angela Shur
Owner of Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies in Mount Airy
Tom Brown
Heritage apple expert and collector, and founder of Apple Search
Tony Haywood
Apple specialist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture

What makes North Carolina special when it comes to growing apples?

Angela Shur: First, the apples grow really well because of the altitude, so you can grow many varieties. I used to live up North, and Long Island [where I lived] was flat, so you could only grow certain kinds. There is also clay soil here, which holds the water better. So between the climate, the altitude, and the soil, you can really grow anything.

Tom Brown: In terms of heirloom apples, there are so many varieties in North Carolina. Particularly in Wilkes County — there are around 300 varieties of heirloom apples associated with that area! There are so many people in Wilkes County who have helped me identify trees. Many people in Wilkes county told me that they take pride in having apples that are different from their neighbors. So, at least in that area, it’s a little bit of a competition.

Tony Haywood: The best part about growing apples in North Carolina is that they’re local — they haven’t been shipped, and they haven’t been put in long-term storage like a lot of apples in the grocery store are. Some apples found in the grocery store can be up to a year or a year and a half old because storage techniques have advanced over the years, and many apples that you get have been stored long-term as opposed to local, North Carolina apples.

What makes heirloom apples special?

Tom Brown: Each one is unique. We’re so used to these apples from the grocery store: They’re all the same size, and they have been developed to color beautifully before they’re ripe so that they can be shipped early, but they don’t necessarily have the full taste. But heirloom apples have an array of qualities, attributes, colors, and textures that you could never imagine. Sometimes, they’re named after people, like the John Conner apple, and other times, they’re named for nearby objects, like the Hollow Log apple. Years ago, if someone had an apple variety and the person moved away, people would start calling the apple tree on their property by that person’s name.

Where’s the best place to pick apples in our state?

Angela Shur: We grow them on my farm in Surry County, so I usually just pick them here! I also like going to Sky Top Orchards in Flat Rock. They have so many different varieties, and they’re way up there in elevation, so it’s easy for them to grow all kinds.

Tom Brown: Wilkes County is definitely the best place to look in terms of heirloom apples. Also, I found that I had the best success finding heirloom apples when I got away from the commercial growing areas. Typically, you’ll find heirloom apples in people’s yards and in quiet spots.

Tony Haywood: Any of the orchards that allow you to pick your own are great. We have some great orchards all over, but particularly in western North Carolina — 85 percent of all the apples grown in North Carolina are grown in Henderson County.

What qualities do you look for in a good apple?

Angela Shur: I can’t buy an apple in a store. When you grow them yourself, you can actually see the quality of the apple; when you see an apple in a store, you really don’t know how long it’s been sitting there. I like using the apples when they’re in season and when they’re from a place I know. Truthfully, the colors of apples don’t bother me much because I use a lot of them for my pies, and sometimes it’s the apples with the weirdest colors that make the best pies.

Tom Brown: Honestly, I like them all! But I usually look for an apple that is easy to bite. Some people really like crisp apples, but I like an apple that I don’t have to work too hard for. I usually look for one that shears easily — in other words, I can put my teeth into it and a piece will come off easily.

Tony Haywood: I like a crunchy apple, an apple with a little bit of tartness. I like Cameos, Pink Ladies. Cinnamon Crisps are delicious — they’re kind of a new variety, but they have such a good texture. And, of course, there are so many great eating apples; I can say “Honeycrisp,” and everybody cheers. Ginger Gold is a great one, and another standard is a good Gala.

If you could only eat one perfect apple for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Angela Shur: Pink Lady is, by far, my favorite apple. I like it because it’s a smaller apple, and because of the sugar content. And besides, I like the name because everything of mine is pink! It really is my favorite apple. Sometimes they try to trick me, here on the farm — they’ll cut different apples and put them down and get me to do blind taste tests, but I always pick the Pink Lady!

Tom Brown: There’s this heirloom apple called a Magnum Bonum — it’s a smaller apple, just a wonderful, snack-size apple. There are these really large ones in the stores that are just too big, in my opinion. The Magnum Bonum tastes a little bit tart, but it has a good, rich flavor. It’s not too crisp; it’s just slightly soft, but not mealy at all — the best kind of texture.

Tony Haywood: An original Winesap. I love Winesap apples. They’re hard to find, but so good. I like the Winesap because it has a really good crunch, and while it has some sweetness, it also has a really nice tartness. It’s also a nice-looking red apple! I don’t mind a yellow apple, but I just think an apple is supposed to look red.

 

What apples should we cook with?

Angela Shur: I feel like people don’t know this, but it’s actually the apples that make the dessert — it’s not the people; it’s the fruit itself. And we’re pie people, so I always taste any fruit first, before I use it. I love working with McIntosh apples, but I can really use any apple. Sometimes, I like going to places like Sky Top, just to get varieties that we don’t grow here. But my biggest thing is that I always taste the apple first: I always cut into it and eat one just so that I can get the taste in my mouth. I can usually tell what desserts to make by how bitter, sour, or sweet it is. But you can really cook with anything — you just have to know what you’re using and how to work with it.

Tom Brown: For making applesauce, a Yellow Transparent or an Early Transparent are both great. And for a pie, you can use a good, tart apple like a Stump apple. For apple butter, lots of people like an apple called the Wolf River apple. There are hundreds and hundreds of varieties, but it’s interesting to hear what different people in different areas use for cooking certain things.

Tony Haywood: I’ll have to fall back on my wife’s preferences for this one! She loves Rome apples for cooking, and also Yellow Delicious. Those are probably her two favorite cooking apples.

 

What’s your go-to apple treat?

Angela Shur: I love making apple pies, and that’s what I do. Other than apple pies, fritters, and doughnuts, I like making apple ice cream. We make vanilla ice cream, and then we food-process the apple into small particles, and, depending on which apples are in it, it makes the best ice cream! Sometimes, people ask for an apple pie ice cream where you add some pie and mix it in, but I’m more of a simple gal — I like just the pure apple ice cream, and to me, that’s the best flavor.

Tony Haywood: My wife makes this recipe called “Miss Pergo’s Apple Delight.” It’s kind of like a dry apple cobbler. It’s really good. My wife’s actually been making that recipe since she was 8 years old. For a snack, I just love a good, fresh, sliced apple with some sharp Cheddar cheese. I love the sweet, tart, salty combination of the cheese with the tart apple.

So, Miss Angel, can you tell us your secrets for baking the best apple pie?

Angela Shur: Well, of course you need the perfect dough! The second thing is that you really want a mixture of apples: When we do our pies, I look for all three qualities — a sour, a sweet, and a hard apple. I do this because the sour apples will usually give the pie an offset of taste, the sweet apples flavor it so that I don’t need a lot of sugar, and the hard apples are the ones you would always see in an apple pie if you went into a store. Those are the ones that stay firm through baking. You never want to just use one kind of apple, ever! You’ll also want to prepare your apples. What I’ll usually do is cut the apples and put them in buckets. We let them soak for two days in a mixture of honey, water, and a little bit of lemon juice, because the lemon takes that sting out of the tart apples. When the apples are done soaking, they go in pans in the oven. We do an eight-minute bake, and then the apples are ready for the pie! Whenever you go apple picking or you’re baking a pie, remember to experiment. Life is all about experimenting — with food, especially. If you’re following a recipe book, you’re just doing what someone else did. If you like a recipe, experiment with it and try something different!

What’s your favorite apple activity?

Angela Shur: Every season, we end up with these old, rotten apples. We call them deer apples because I like feeding the deer with them — I leave piles of apples on the ground, and I love catching the deer down there, snacking on them. Another thing I love is an activity that we do during the festival at our farm: the apple slingshot! I like doing it with the kids who visit. And, of course, baking is my passion, but the main thing I enjoy is being on the farm with those who visit — even the animals. It’s funny — when you have an apple tree out there, you don’t know if a bear is going to climb up in it and get fruit in the middle of the night. Some people see those creatures as a nuisance, but to me, that’s fine. If you have it, share it.

Tom Brown: Searching for them! I have a stack of nursery catalogs and books that’s probably about 30 feet tall. Half the time, owners know the names of their old apple trees, but many times, I have to identify the apple myself, which always makes the search interesting. I go through a process of identifying them in catalogs and meeting with older people to talk about what they can remember about certain varieties. It takes a long time, but it’s rewarding when you find the apples that fit the description.

Tony Haywood: I love going to the roadside stands to buy them — the overall experience when there are people there with little kids, smelling the apple-cinnamon doughnuts and picking out which apples they want. I also love the orchards. To me, that’s something that you have to go do for it to be fall. It’s a part of the changing of the seasons. And those apple-cinnamon doughnuts are addictive! I remember going to one stand where this sweet lady was cooking them, and I asked her, “You’re not putting anything illegal in those, are you?” They’re just so addictive, I can’t get enough of them!

Can you *pick* a favorite apple memory?

Angela Shur: When I lived on Long Island, I lived on the east side, right on the water, so there were apples all around us. When we moved down here, the first things we planted were 50 apple trees — and we did it because of the memories from our past. Of course, the 50 apple trees have turned into probably a thousand. I don’t think that there’s any one greater feeling than going to that tree and picking my own apples now.

Tom Brown: When I was growing up, we had about seven really big apple trees, and they held these medium-size apples with red stripes. When we went to church camp in late fall or summer, we would make cider with those apples. Every one of those apples had a worm in it that you had to cut out, but that was just a part of the process. Also, I remember my mama making apple pie out of this green apple called a Pound apple — those were so good. As an adult, I could never find those apples, but later on, I found several of them in Iredell County; it was so good to find them after so many years.

This story was published on Sep 16, 2020

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Anna Grace Thrailkill

Anna Grace Thrailkill is Our State's Summer 2020 intern.