Friday, April 18, 2014

Apples in Stereo

Never buy apples on sale or cider at the store.

How do I know? Because Professor Apple said it was so.

Tom Burford is Prof Apple, an expert on apple cultivation from Amherst County, Virginia and the author of a new book, "Apples of North America," the source of his talk tonight at the Library of Virginia.

I was surprised at how many couples were in attendance, but perhaps that was because it wasn't just a talk but also a cider tasting with Blue Bee Cider and Albermarle Cider Works.

Fact: it's far easier to get your significant other to do something cultural when there's drinking involved.

Waiting for the talk to begin, I overheard a woman discussing her upcoming Rose party Monday. She was instructing one of her guests to wear the same gray sweater he'd worn last year, the better for them to hold up glasses of Rose against to compare hues.

You know, salmon versus strawberry pink versus pale cherry.

Forget the gray sweater, I've never heard of a Rose party in April. I'm going to a couple, but they're both in June. Could this be jumping the Rose gun?

The editor of Richmond Magazine came in and said hello, asking where I was off to after the talk and tasting, because she was certain I had additional plans. When I told her dinner, she said I didn't have to tell her where and I didn't.

Charlotte of Albemarle Cider Works introduced the professor, saying his work had inspired them to start a cider operation. She told us Courtney from Blue Bee had apprenticed with them for a year before starting her urban cidery.

It was becoming clear that the cidery world is just as incestuous as the restaurant or music community. And at the heart of it all is Tom Burford, aka Professor Apple.

"I would bet everyone of you here likes apples a lot," the Professor said. "Else, why would you be here?

He started with a little history about how apple seeds had been brought to Jamestown in 1607 (European honeybees arrived in 1611) to plant, not for eating, but for cider.

The Virginia soil turned out to be so fertile that apple trees flourished and they were soon grafting to duplicate the particularly tasty apple trees.

That's when the best part came, as the Professor took us through the really tasty heirloom apples, so many completely new to me.

Arkansas black, the new kid on the block in 1870, Ben Davis, one of the most promising apples of the future and Black Twig, which I've not only picked myself, but the Prof called one of the great apples in America.

There was the Cannon Pearmain, an old historic Virginia apple he told us to keep our eye on, the Grimes Golden he described as the sugar apple that makes fabulous brandy, Harrison, the most desirable cider apple and lost for many years and only rediscovered by the Prof in 1989 in New Jersey.

So it turns out that those little Lady Apples I thought were purely decorative make exquisite cider and vinegar. The Lowry, he said, deserves to be brought back. The Newtown (or Albemarle Pippin) is such high quality it's used to make "Sunday cider," special stuff, in other words.

Pilot is the apple of Nelson County, Northern Spy makes the best pies and Ralls is the apple of Amherst County, planted by Jefferson at Monticello.

Roxbury Russett is the oldest named variety, Smokehouse is a great frying apple (and what his mother was picking when she went into labor with him) and Virginia Hewes is considered one of the best in the world for cider.

And the Winesap, well that's a classic apple perfect for brandy.

Dizzy at the array of apples we'd just learned, someone asked the Professor's favorite. "My favorite eating apple is the last one I ate," he claimed.

He should know. This is a guy who had introduced heirloom apple varieties to New England the West Coast, France and Senegal. His passion for apples and identifying and preserving long-lost varieties made him a fascinating speaker to listen to.

To close, he implored us to seek out heirloom apples, go to farmers' markets and orchards and help support bringing back apples that taste good instead of the dreaded red or golden Delicious, an apple I've refused to buy or eat most of my life.

Our brains newly full of apple info, he dispatched us to the cidery tasting just outside the lecture hall doors, like a 3rd grade teacher sending the kids off to recess after a morning's lesson.

Since I've been to both cideries, I limited myself to one tasting at each: Albemarle's Jupiter's Legacy (because it uses Black Twigs, natch) and Blue Bee's Aragon 1904, which tastes one step removed from champagne to me.

I have to say, as book talks go, this one rates right up there with the moonshine author at Chop Suey, here. Say what you will, but tasting aids make learning more fun.

Thanks, Professor Apple!

Walking in to Magpie for dinner didn't look promising. Every bar seat was taken, but I was told I could waste a three-top by sitting there, a position that always makes me feel guilty.

Still, I wanted to eat, so I did, hoping a stool would open up soon and I could move.

I ordered a glass of M. Lawrence "Sex" Brut Rose, only to find that the clamorous table behind me had gobbled up the last bottle. Clearly there would be no sex for me tonight.

My server graciously suggested a Cremant d'Alsace instead and I was happy to make the shift from Michigan to France.

An amuse bouche of caramelized onion puree with a lump of blue cheese and bits of cocoa crisps was presented, one perfect bite to whet the appetite.

One of tonight's specials was bacon-wrapped rabbit country pate with rhubarb ('tis the season) jam and housemade pickled vegetables and since I was already sipping bubbles, pate seemed like a natural.

I'd only taken a few bites, slathering the pate thickly on toasted crostini, when two guys arrived for a later reservation to find that their table was not yet free.

Here was my chance to assuage my guilt about taking up a three-top, so I invited them to join me. They pretended to protest for a minute, worried that they were intruding on my evening, and then six more people walked in and they gratefully accepted my offer.

Explaining that they needn't feel obligated to converse with me, the one not getting the drinks was having none of it. "No, we're extroverted, so we want to talk to you." Well, now, this was going to work out just fine.

Thomas and Joe were on their second date and as charming as they could be. After procuring beverages, we proceeded to share information about restaurants we liked, where we lived and how they liked life in Richmond, both of them being fairly recent transplants.

"What's an attractive woman like you doing eating dinner by herself on a Friday night?" Joe wanted to know.

Who you calling attractive, I wanted to know.

They were intrigued by the many faces of Helen's, how different it is for dinner versus late night or brunch. Joe insisted that the Hill Cafe has the best fried chicken in town, a fact I doubted. Thomas wanted to know about all the cheap eats deals I could share.

Before long, I had a talker on either side of me, asking questions and providing answers to mine.

I inquired if either got out to hear much local music and  got nothing, but Thomas offered that one of the friends who was joining them was a singer in a band.

When the duo arrived, I was introduced as their new friend, one who had saved them from having to stand in the middle of the restaurant with nowhere to go. Forget the gratitude, I wanted to know which was the musician to start that conversation.

"What local bands do you like?" he asked me, testing me. When I mentioned White Laces, he said they used the same producer and an immediate bond was formed in that way that music-lovers do when they find someone who likes a band they do.

We moved on to venues when I said I regularly frequented Gallery 5, the Camel and Strange Matter and Thomas said he'd never heard of Gallery 5.

It is my un-sworn duty in life to school people on the finer points of Jackson Ward's diverse offerings, explaining to him that if he'd been to Comfort- and he'd told me he had -then he'd been a mere block from the venue.

When the server came to get them to lead them to their table, we all said heartfelt thanks for the company and conversation.

I'm not going to force myself on anyone, but I'm not going to waste a three-top if I can help it, either.

Never buy apples on sale, cider at the store or turn away perfectly good company. Professor's rules.

1 comment:

  1. Karen, it truly was a pleasure meeting you last night. It's not often that I meet someone with such an interesting story! Thank you, again, for your kindness and the seats.