On my drive to my parents’ home in Bruce County last Thanksgiving, they told my girlfriend and I to check out O’keefe’s Grange, an apple orchard southwest of Owen Sound. My parents had recently bought a sapling tree from them and got to know the owners Bill and Lyn. We were lucky enough to stop by during their annual heritage apple tasting. It’s free to sample the 60 or so varieties they have harvested out of the 160-240 they grow.
It was a unique experience unlike any orchard I’ve been to. We pulled into the lane way off a dirt county road and wandered into the wooden barn-like store. Hundreds of apples were organized by variety in various baskets, bowls, or plates with a peach paper sign that told you the apple’s name along with its origin, a brief description, and best use for the apple. A paring knife and napkins were placed by every few baskets and Bill told us to help ourselves. We would cut off a wedge, sample, wipe the knife and move on to the next one.
Like wine tasting, when you’re sampling several varieties the differences become quite noticeable – sweet, tart, and crisp were just the beginning. Some had notes of pineapple, from others you could get hints of banana or cranberry. Thick skin vs thin. Every few samples Bill would give us a bit more info about the apple we were eating. The ‘esopus spitzenburg,’ for instance, was discovered in the 18th century, had a late harvest, was pale red in colour, and had a crisp flesh. Good for eating out of hand, but also lends itself well to baking and cider. What we didn’t know is that it was supposedly Thomas Jefferson’s favourite variety, and was a leading variety at the time in New York. It also benefits from a couple weeks in the cellar to develop a better flavour profile.
After about an hour, we wanted to buy a couple of all the apples to bring back to Waterloo and share with our friends. We slowly whittled our list down to 10 varieties and got a pound of each, which go for $2/lb. Bill was a little apprehensive to sell us the quantity he did as their intent is to sample apples to later have the customer purchase a sapling tree, but he was swayed by our enthusiasm.
The majority of apples were not very visually appealing. No pesticides are used on the property, which leaves the trees susceptible to bug bites, blemishes, and inconsistencies. Keep in mind, with upwards of 200 varieties, it’s got to be hard to sell wholesale. We had to ask what they did with any leftovers.
By mid November when all the trees have been harvested, what hasn’t yet sold is turned into cider. Every year a new batch of cider is released with a unique taste due to the apple composition of each year’s batch. Unfortunately we didn’t get our hands on a bottle, but will definitely be trying again this year!
O’keefe’s specialize in grafting heritage breeds. They use the tasting weekend as a marketing tool to sample unique apple profiles from either heritage or cross breeds. They have access to approximately 1000 varieties. So if you’re looking for an apple that you can’t find at the super market, give them a call. Bill and Lyn will tell you all you need.