The apple is, perhaps, the most democratic of fruits. Dependable and solid, a perfect blend of sweet and tart, equally tasty whether eaten raw, baked into a cake or pressed into cider.
Of course, nothing could be more American than apple pie, but a robust apple from Virginia called the Albemarle pippin once made even a young Queen Victoria swoon.
If there is one piece of fruit that seems to have captured the fancies of statesmen, farmers, chefs, and, yes, royalty, since Colonial times, it’s the Albemarle pippin, a green apple with russet shoulders that began its journey in – where else? – the Big Apple.
“It’s a true American apple,” says horticulturist Grace Elton, CEO of Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts, which grows 119 varieties of pre-20th-century heirloom apples.
Originally grown in the Elmhurst area of Queens, the Newtown pippin was already a favorite in the American colonies, a citrusy green apple that improved in flavor while being stored during the long winter.
But when cuttings were taken to central Virginia in the 1750s by Thomas Jefferson’s guardian, Thomas Walker, the Southern climate seemed to really agree with the Northern apple. A new and improved version of the Newtown pippin emerged, eventually named for its home in Albemarle County, Virginia.
“It took on a different appearance and taste,” says Diane Burns, a horticulturist at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards just outside Charlottesville, Virginia. “Our soil is different from New York, along with the climate and elevation. The Newtown was already a good apple, but growing it in the Piedmont region made it even better.”
Make no mistake, the Albemarle and the Newton pippin are basically regional versions of the same apple (also known as the yellow pippin or yellow Newtown), but it was a canny Virginia statesman, Andrew Stevenson, who handily boosted his home state’s economy by presenting a teenage Queen Victoria with a gift of the Albemarle variety from his family’s orchards.
According to “Old Southern Apples” by Creighton Lee Calhoun, Victoria became so besotted with the fruit that she went as far as to lift the high tariff on the Albemarle pippin so that her subjects could munch on them to their heart’s delight – if they could afford them. The Virginia apple eventually became so popular that it commanded triple the price of other apples for sale in England, becoming, arguably, the most coveted apple in the world. The tariff wasn’t reinstated for nearly a century.
As Stevenson’s wife later wrote to friends in Virginia, “They were eaten and praised by royal lips and swallowed by many aristocratic throats.”
And if you’ve never heard of – or eaten – the Albemarle pippin, it may be primarily because of one factor: By modern standards of uniformity and perfection, it ain’t pretty.
Often pockmarked and misshapen, many heirloom varieties have fallen out of favor over the past several decades, while more attractive and disease-resistant apples have captured the marketplace.
One fairly recent entry is the popular, and prettier, Ginger gold, a commercial variety developed in Virginia in the 1960s that just happens to be the mildly tart offspring of the Albemarle pippin and Golden Delicious apples.
“Today’s apples are bred for perfection, but they are just sweet apples,” says Burns. “These older varieties may not be so sweet or look as nice, but they have a great flavor, a bit more tart and full-bodied. You have to look past the pockmarks on the skin.”
When Burns started growing fresh produce for the kitchens at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards in 2016, she knew she wanted to cultivate the Albemarle pippin, establishing what she calls a “boutique orchard” with just a handful of trees. She became familiar with the variety while working several years earlier at Jefferson’s home, Monticello, where the apple has been cultivated since 1769. For Pippin Hill executive chef Ian Rynecki, who joined in 2017, it was a chance to really explore the flavor profile of an apple that had caught his eye in the past.
“I had seen it maybe three times at farmers markets in New York,” says Rynecki. “From a culinary standpoint, it primarily lends itself to being a dessert apple. It has firm flesh, a lot of complexity to it, not just a sweet or tart apple.”
Rynecki has had ample time to play with the Albemarle during his first year at Pippin Hill, pairing it with aged sheep and goat cheeses, showcasing it in a classic tarte Tatin, and allowing its sweet and tart qualities to play off the peppery notes of fresh mustard greens. He has found that it even takes well to being dried and powdered, adding its floral notes to savory recipes.
“It’s funny to describe an apple as having a finish to it, as you would describe a wine,” says Rynecki, “but some of these heirloom varieties really reward you with their complexity.”
Key is allowing the apple to cure. “When you first harvest the Albemarle pippin in the fall, it’s not a wonderful flavor,” says Peggy Cornett, curator of plants at Monticello, “but if you keep it in a storage cellar or your refrigerator, it has a marvelous flavor by late winter and spring.”
Elton, of Tower Hill Botanic Garden, agrees that a hallmark of many heirloom apples is their storage ability.
“We tend to think of fresh fruit as something that we want to eat immediately,” she says. “Actually, with the pippin, it can get even better the longer that you wait, as the sugars become even more concentrated.”
Queen Victoria would certainly agree.
Albemarle pippins can be found at farmers markets throughout the southwestern Virginia area or ordered online through Turkey Knob Growers at www.turkeyknobgrowers.com.
Albemarle Pippin Apple Cobbler10 to 12 servings
If you can’t find Albemarle pippins (or other pippins, such as the Newtown, yellow or orange pippin), use a combination of two or three other slightly tart heirloom apples, including Winesap, Granny Smith, Empire, Cortland, Liberty and Jonathan. Serve with vanilla or salted caramel ice cream.Ingredients3 pounds Albemarle pippin apples, peeled, cored, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (see headnote)1/2 cup sugar2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice2 tablespoons whiskey3/4 teaspoon cornstarch1/2 teaspoon kosher salt1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmegFor the topping11/2 cups flour1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar2 teaspoons baking powder3/4 teaspoon kosher salt9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) chilled unsalted butter, cubed3/4 cup milkStepsFor the filling: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Toss the cubed apples with the sugar, lemon juice, whiskey, cornstarch, salt and nutmeg in a mixing bowl so the apples are well coated. Pour the apple mixture into a glass or ceramic 9-by-13-inch baking dish or divide among three- or four-inch ramekins set on a baking sheet. Bake (middle rack) for 10 minutes then remove from the oven.
Meanwhile, make the topping: Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a food processor; pulse a few times to incorporate. Add the butter; pulse just until the butter has been reduced to pea-size pieces and is evenly coated, then transfer to a mixing bowl. Use a fork to stir in milk until the mixture just comes together to form a slightly sticky dough. (Alternatively, you can assemble the topping by hand.)
Distribute rounded-tablespoon clumps of the dough on top of the cobbler filling; the dough should cover most of the fruit, but there will be small, open pockets here and there. Make sure to leave a small hole in the center so steam can escape.
Return the baking dish to the oven; bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown on top and bubbling. Check the topping with a cake tester; it will be ready when the tester comes out clean.
Let sit for 20 or 30 minutes before serving.
Adapted from a Ian Rynecki, executive chef at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards.