An astounding 17,000 named apple varieties once flourished in the orchards of North America.
Many of those varieties are now extinct and the vast majority of those that remain are in danger of disappearing forever.
But not if Harry Burton and a group of fellow apple enthusiasts have their way.
Burton owns Apple Luscious Organic Orchard on Salt Spring Island, where he grows 320 apple trees. It doesn’t sound all that special until you discover that his small orchard boasts about 250 different apple varieties.
Most of them, you’ve likely never heard of.
“Go into any of the large grocery stores today and you may find a handful of varieties of apples, but those stores really only stock a few of a list of about 15 varieties, over and over again,” Burton said.
“The problem is that these varieties aren’t necessarily the best-tasting apples out there. The stores stock them because (except for Granny Smith apples) they found out that most people will buy red apples that look perfect on the outside, no matter how they taste. They can, and sometimes do, taste like cardboard.”
The result for apple growers is that, regardless of taste, they have been forced to migrate to one of the established varieties as a matter of financial survival.
Burton maintains that the world is losing apple varieties that taste far better than anything on offer in the big stores and he’s intent on changing that situation.
“I sell at markets and at stores like The Local Grocery up in Fernwood, and when I set up a stall, I always give out free samples. People try my apples and tell me they’ll never buy another apple in a big grocery store again,” Burton said.
The samples are necessary because a lot of the best apples in the world do not have the aesthetic appeal of a Red Delicious (which Burton maintains is misnamed because, while it is definitely red, it is far from delicious).
“Take the Cox Orange Pippen for example. It’s an English apple from the 1700s and is one of the best-eating apples in the world. But it’s an ugly apple by today’s standards. It’s smaller, with not much red, but it tastes better than any apple available in the stores.”
Burton has also taken it upon himself to spread the flavour beyond his little corner of the world.
“I’ve got about half of 900 cuttings I’m due to ship out to people all over the place. Hopefully, it will help spread some of these varieties around so people can finally discover what a good apple is supposed to taste like,” Burton said.
“I’m the biggest source right now of red-fleshed apples with 55 varieties that I’m distributing across Canada.”
He is a bit philosophic about his passion for apples.
“Sure, I guess I could get rid of all these varieties and grow only what the big stores will buy, but what a horrible life that would be,” Burton said. “I’d rather spend my time saving some part of what we never should have lost.”
With that in mind, Burton helps organize the Salt Spring Apple Festival, an annual event that highlights and promotes a return to superior apple varieties.
“People can actually go out to the farms and taste the fresh apples and learn a bit about what they’ve been missing,” Burton said.
This year’s festival will take place on Oct. 1 on Salt Spring Island. More information is available at saltspringapplefestival.org.
Find more information about Burton and other local farmers in the annual Island Farm Fresh Guide or online at islandfarmfresh.com. You can also find a digital copy of the guide online at vicnews.com/e-editions.
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