Once upon a time, an apple seed sprouted and took root on the wrong side of the orchard fence. It grew into a little seedling - and was mowed down. It grew up again - and again it was mowed down. Undaunted, it stretched for the sky yet again, and this time the orchardist took note. This is a tough little seedling! Maybe it will make good root stock for my orchard. I wonder how its apples taste? So the seedling grew into a tree, and its fruit turned out to be extraordinary. The ‘Spencerville Red' apple was born!
Since I first heard its story, I've thought of the 'Spencerville Red' as "The Little Apple That Could." Since I first tasted it, it's been my very favorite apple for every use. I'm sure I've gone through bushels simply eaten out of hand. This apple has gained quite a local following, starring in blue ribbon pies and other favorite recipes. Around here, popular apples have to be delicious for fresh eating as well as fantastic for cooking and baking. The top three sellers for years at the Heyser Farms Market in Colesville, Maryland have been multi-purpose apples: 'Spencerville Red', ‘Nittany', and ‘Fuji'.
The variety was patented in 1992, and its cultivation is restricted. Other than the Heyser Farms' orchards, I think it's grown only in one other location (another family orchard in Pennsylvania). We have our own miniature home orchard, and for years I've reserved space for a pair of 'Spencerville Red' trees. I'm willing to sign any agreement that I won't propagate the trees, and I've offered high prices, but so far I've had no success in convincing them to part with a "proprietary" tree or two.
A few years ago, the Heysers did try to expand cultivation of the 'Spencerville Red', with the intent of making it commercially available. They signed contracts with a local grocery store chain, but as I was told last week, they "needed a better marketing strategy." The apples hit the shelves with a premium price tag, but since they were largely unknown, most customers bought the cheaper and reliably well known varieties instead.
We discovered Heyser Farm's apples when we lived nearby. Now we make at least one trip down from Frederick each fall and consider the one hour trip (each way) well worth while! The 'Spencerville Red' apple is very crisp, with a perfect balance of sweet apple flavor and tart juiciness. When cooked, slices of this apple hold their shape and texture. I made the best applesauce with them one year: lots of apple chunks with just enough softened sauce to fill the spaces between them, and just a touch of cinnamon.
For pies, cider, and other apple recipes, it's often best to use a mix of apple varieties for the fullest flavor. But this apple has such intense flavor and such a good balance of characteristics that it can stand alone. At Heyser Farms, they say 'Spencerville Red' apples are the secret to their award-winning fresh cider. They also do special pressings of Spencerville-only cider each year, and those jugs sell out quickly. They make special batches of 'Spencerville Red' apple sauce and apple butter, too.
When you bring home a big bag of ‘Spencerville Red' or your own regional favorite, be sure to store them in a cool place so they'll stay crisp. Sometimes our garage is cold enough, but we usually make room for them in our refrigerator. Cider also needs to be refrigerated, unless you want it to harden into an alcoholic version. You can freeze cider also, right in the plastic jug. Just pour yourself half a glass first, not only to test the flavor but also to keep the jug from bursting in the freezer.
We'll be driving back and forth to Baltimore fairly regularly this fall, and I was delighted when my husband pointed out that a slight detour would take us back to Heyser Farms. At the rate that we're eating them, we'll need another half bushel or two. And we've almost bought enough cider to get a free jug as members of their "cider club!"
If you don't live close enough to sample 'Spencerville Red' apples for yourself, you'll have to explore and find your own regional favorite. You can't beat an apple with great taste and a great story!
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus. Move your mouse over images and links for more information (let the cursor hover for a couple of seconds, and a pop-up caption will appear).