Stan Bischoping remembers his father pulling back the cover of a pit dug into the ground in his orchard, where he stored apples over the winter. Young Stan took a bite of an heirloom Tompkins County King apple, stored for at least a couple months into cold weather, and remembers the moment: “It was delicious—sweet, juicy, crisp, full of apple flavor. The King is still my favorite heirloom variety, as it was my father’s.”
Today, Stan and his wife, Karen, help keep alive the rich heritage of the apple, preserving heirloom apple varieties that might otherwise be lost forever. The Bischopings push back against the idea that apples should be perfect, blemish-free, easy to ship, and always the same. And they continue to add new heirloom apple varieties to their Williamson orchards, currently numbering 85, of which 50 are heirloom varieties that you probably won’t find at the supermarket.
Generally speaking, an heirloom is any type of apple that existed before World War II, after which hybrids were created to tolerate shipping and poor growing conditions. Unlike hybrids, heirloom seeds produce plants that are nearly the same as their parents. So an heirloom apple today tastes pretty close to one eaten more than 80 years ago. Complex, rich, nuanced flavors are characteristic of heirloom apples; sometimes the flavors continue to develop after harvest. Heirlooms often have evocative names that hint at the fruit’s distinctive qualities. Karen and Stan grow an apple called Winter Banana, which Stan says actually has a slight banana taste. “And when I’m picking the Chenango Strawberry apple, there’s a subtle strawberry scent in the tree.”
Stan grew up on a small farm in Penfield, where his father collected several old varieties of apples as they disappeared from commercial orchards. In 1979, Karen and Stan started their own farm—K&S Bischoping—on 10 acres of fertile, gently-sloping land in Williamson, less than a mile from Lake Ontario. The giant lake’s moderating influence on warm days and cool nights creates the ideal growing conditions that have made this a premier apple-growing region for hundreds of years.
Many of the heirloom varieties in the Bischopings’ orchard originated in far-flung locales, as the names suggest, often brought to America by early immigrants. Calville Blanc, a yellow apple which originated in France in the 1500s, is still a favorite in France for tarte aux pommes.
Duchess of Oldenburg, streaked with red and orange, originated in Russia in the 18th century. Karmijn de Sonnaville, sweet with some acidity, was first introduced in the Netherlands. Cox’s Orange Pippin, considered one of the world’s great apples due to its aromatic, crisp, juicy flesh, was first grown in England in 1830 and is still England’s most popular apple today. The quaintly named Seek No Further apple originated in Massachusetts in the 1700s, and is considered an excellent eating apple. And the Summer Rambo apple lent its name to the action film hero after the author of the book from which the films were taken tasted a Rambo apple brought home by his wife.
Heirloom apples do present challenges to the modern grower.
“The biggest problem is the limited demand for each variety. Instead of acres of one variety, we often have a single tree. This severely handicaps the commercial grower in the mechanization of the orchard,” Stan says.
Many of the heirlooms are biennial, producing crops only every other year. Karen says different varieties of apples thrive in different locations. If a variety doesn’t find a following in the marketplace, they may pull it out and try another.
Stan will graft a cutting of a variety onto a tree in the orchard to test it; if it shows promise, he will then start an entire tree of the variety.
In some varieties, the apples on a tree all ripen at the same time, while others require many pickings. They must be harvested at just the right moment—too early, and the apple will be hard, flavorless, and astringent; too late, and it will be “like an overripe peach. You only have one chance to get it right,” Karen says. She and Stan gauge ripeness with a lot of tasting, and Stan seems to have developed a kind of sixth sense about some apples: “You look at how the sunlight hits the fruit, and how the background color changes, and you know that it’s ready.”
Karen and Stan sell their apples, along with peaches, plums, pears, quince, cherries, currants, raspberries, crabapples, and blueberries, at area farmers’ markets, including Brighton, Canandaigua, and South Wedge. Karen says the heirloom apples are popular with customers. “One customer comes every year on his birthday, when the Duchess is ripe; he always has a Duchess apple pie for his birthday. Others want to try a different variety every week.”
And with the number of varieties the Bischopings grow, you could do just that.