Rowan Jacobsen’s interest in apples took root 10 years ago, when he and his wife bought an 1840s farmhouse in Vermont that was surrounded by old, gnarled apple trees bearing lots of unfamiliar-looking fruit. One was striped red and yellow like a beach ball, another – brown and fuzzy – looked more like an Asian pear. He bit into a third, and it exploded in his mouth with flavors of cinnamon and spice.

Jacobsen’s quest to identify those apples launched years of research that ultimately became his newest book, “Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics, & Little-Known Wonders.”

Jacobsen, 46, is the author of “A Geography of Oysters,” which won a James Beard Award, and “American Terroir.” His examination of American apples, from the rarest varieties to the ubiquitous Red Delicious, is both informative and laced with humor. The Knobbed Russet, covered with “welts and warty knobs,” he writes in a chapter on oddball apples, “is here to freak out your friends.”

He compares the Newtown Pippin, superb in a pie or made into cider, to Forrest Gump for its affinity for intersecting “with an improbable number of historic personages and places over the course of its career,” including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The Hidden Rose, which when sliced open reveals a beautiful dark pink flesh inside, is “going to be one of the next big apples,” Jacobsen predicts.

The book comes with recipes, and photos – if there is such a thing as apple porn, this is it.

We spoke with Jacobsen while he was in Washington state, in apple country, on his book tour.

We’re in a renaissance of apple culture. Did people just get sick and tired of having only one or two choices in the grocery store?

That was part of it. I think for a while people didn’t even know there were more options available. We just didn’t know what we were missing. That’s what changed; people started to get a clue that there was more going on with apples than they realized. So yeah, we’re just coming out of this weird little Dark Age where apples weren’t appreciated for all the amazing things they can do.

Farmers markets must have played a big role in connecting consumers with some of the rediscovered varieties.

Definitely. Farmers markets and the pick-your-own orchards. I actually give a certain amount of credit to the Honeycrisp for this, too. It’s kind of been a game changer in the apple world. It awakened people to a whole different type of apple than they had all grown up with, the Golden Deliciouses and the Red Deliciouses of the world.

Even before that, some of the apples that were coming in from Australia and New Zealand were very different, and now people are totally open to trying strange apples.

Do you think the Honeycrisp will become so popular that it will end up being Red Delicious 2.0?

There might be a little bit of backlash eventually, but it may end up being the No. 1 apple at some point. It’s been shooting up the charts. People just adore it. And once they go Honeycrisp, they won’t go back.

The other reason (Honeycrisp) is a game changer is it’s not a particularly attractive apple. Growers were paid based on how red their Red Delicious were, so they had every reason to try to pursue the redder ones even if they lost the flavor along the way.

The whole mindset in the producer realm was you’re growing apples for attractiveness, and flavor is secondary. And then the Honeycrisp came along and it was all about flavor – or texture, really, more than flavor.

Yes, you say in your book the reason it’s so popular is it kind of explodes in your mouth.

Exactly. That explosive quality is totally amazing. The flavor is actually pretty middle of the road. It’s sweet and kind of dilute juicy, and that’s about it. But that’s enough.

How many varieties of apples did you sample in researching this book?

I probably sampled 200. I had to make cuts, some of them painful, toward the end to fit my maximum allotted page count. There was a lot of wandering through strange orchards and chewing and spitting and assessing.

Did you just go in search of different varieties – a random search – or did you put out feelers to try to find out who was growing what?

It was kind of a mix. I talked to growers about some of their favorites, some of the apple collector guys, and I’ve done research. There are some great books written about apples in the 1800s. Some of those are very opinionated about certain apples. So I developed a wish list of apples that I knew I wanted to check out.

Were there times you’d just stop by the side of the road and try something?

In Vermont, I do that all the time. This time of year the roadsides are just laden with wild apple trees, volunteer trees that nobody planted. But those aren’t any particular variety. You don’t know what you’re going to get with them. My wife and son don’t like to drive with me this time of year.

Did you have any favorites that you feel like you can’t live without now?

Some well known, and some that I can’t understand why they’re not super famous. Cox’s Orange Pippin is just a spectacular apple. In England, it’s considered the great eating apple. It has been since 1825. It’s amazing you don’t see it here more often because it has a complexity of flavor that’s not like any of our American apples.

Then there are some other ones that were developed here that I don’t understand why they’ve never been big. There’s one called Chestnut Crab developed by the University of Minnesota in the ’40s or something – incredibly good little apple, just really sweet, really spicy, rich, nutty flavor. And really crisp – snappy, kind of. There are apple geeks out there who rave about it.

It’s small, and I think there’s a disconnect between the consumers and the producers about what people want. Growers won’t do a small apple. Anything smaller than a Golden Delicious, the assumption is it doesn’t work on the market. But what I find is a lot of people like smaller apples.

Did you have to go to Minnesota to taste that one or are people growing it in Vermont?

Not in Vermont. I’ve come across that one in a couple of different places. That was probably out in Geneva, N.Y., the USDA orchard out there. It’s the biggest collection of apple varieties in the world. They’ve got over 2,000 varieties. I spent a long time out there just wandering and sampling. It was pretty dreamy.

What was the rarest apple you tasted? I was intrigued by the Isaac Newton apple (the Flower of Kent) and wondered if you’d tried one of those?

That probably is the rarest one. There’s only a handful of those trees in existence. There’s several in the book where there are maybe four trees that still exist. The Kavanaugh – that’s one that’s basically in a parking lot near L.L. Bean in Maine. I think that’s the only mature Kavanaugh still in existence.

But then Fedco Trees has been selling it through their catalog, so thank goodness there’s a bunch of little baby Kavanaughs out there now.

What about memorable varieties, the ones that didn’t necessarily taste good but had an interesting shape or story? I was thinking that the Knobbed Russet would be the perfect pick for your next Halloween apple-bobbing competition.

That is the funniest apple. There’s only one guy who sells it commercially – Zeke Goodband down in southern Vermont – and it’s a good seller for him.

It’s just like a novelty item, but it’s actually a good apple if you’re brave enough to eat one.

You said D’arcy Spice should be high on everyone’s bucket list, but how can an ordinary person get their hands on one?

You can definitely grow your own. A lot of these collectors, they’ll sell these little saplings or scion wood that you can graft onto another tree. So if you’re willing to grow a tree, you can get almost anything. And that’s really fun. It’s the same price to get these crazy rare trees as it is to get a Macintosh.

If you just want to try some fruit, it’s not always super easy. But Maine’s probably the state where it’s the easiest of anywhere because of Fedco. They’re doing a whole apple CSA. And then you also have actual pick-your-own orchards with many varieties. Maine is like an apple dream.

People who love heirloom apples often say that biting into one is like biting into a piece of history – you’re tasting what your grandmother or great-grandmother tasted.

Are there any varieties that can trace their lineage back to, say, ancient Rome? Could you ever eat an apple that tastes like an apple that the emperor of Rome might have eaten?

That’s a great question, and it’s debated. The Romans definitely had references to certain apples. The lady apple – you know, that little lady apple that usually turns up around Christmas? – you’ll see a lot of claims that that apple goes back to ancient Rome. When I (researched) the book I became skeptical that it goes back that far. There’s no question there was no break in the chain from the Romans to us. Apple cultivation continued that whole time. We must have varieties that probably have changed names six times along the way that do go back to them, but I don’t think we can prove it.

Which lost apple would you most like to try?

There’s one called the Tolliver. It was one of the big four that Thomas Jefferson planted at Monticello. He played around with, I think, 18 varieties and he settled on four that he thought were the best of the best. One was Newtown Pippin, which was for eating; one was Esopus Spitzenburg, I think; one was Hewes Crab, which is a cider apple; and the other was Tolliver, which is supposed to make the best cider of all. So far it looks like that one has truly been lost.

There’s a guy named Tom Burford who’s kind of like the John Bunker of Virginia (John Bunker is Maine’s best-known heirloom apple expert), and he’s been hot on the trail of the Tolliver for years, his whole life really, and there have been a couple of times when he thought he had it and then he decided he doesn’t. But he still thinks there’s hope.

Everyone likes to talk smack about the Red Delicious. Does it have any redeeming qualities?

It’s funny, right now I’m in Yakima, Washington, which is the apple center of the universe. Just before talking to you, I was driving through some of the biggest Red Delicious orchards in existence, and man, they are gorgeous. They are truly gorgeous. That’s like the premium apple that the Chinese and Japanese will import to give as gifts because it’s so beautiful. They think it’s exotic because they mostly have Fujis over there.

Cider is also making a comeback now. Can that be attributed to the apple renaissance, or is it an extension of the craft beer and cocktail culture?

Cider is where craft beer was 20 years ago, and it seems to be following that same line. Portland will see its first cider bar before too long. There’s one here in Seattle now, and there’s one opening in New York this fall. I think originally it was unrelated, except that it’s kind of connected to the locavore thing, in New England in particular. Because you know, we’ve always tried to grow good wine and I don’t think we’re quite there on the wine, but man we grow good apples, especially good cider apples. It’s kind of the perfect local tipple for New England, and it has huge, deep historical connections. I think that’s driving part of it. And the other part is just the foodie/gluten-free thing, which is really two completely different markets.

At least the gluten-free people will get more variety once cider producers start using all these different apples again.

That’s a good point to make with cider. We are just beginning to taste the good ciders. It’s a huge upside that’s going to happen as more and more good fruit comes along.

You’ve written, in a similar vein, about varieties of oysters. I’m curious if you enjoyed working on one book over the other? Did you ever get sick of eating either one?

I can’t say I got sick of eating either one. But with both of them, suddenly you hit your limit and you feel like you’re done for the day (laughing).

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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