The art of apple picking

— I love being in the orchard in the fall. Rustling leaves are brittle, swishing in the early autumn breeze. A cidery-pungent smell wafts up from the orchard floor, where drop-apples are baked into the ground by the late-summer sun. The bees are working them. Honeybees are the original recyclers, and apples are the perennial answer to their sweet tooth. They collect pollen from the apple blossoms in May, and they pollinate the rest of the orchard in their spring travels. In the fall, they return to feast on fully-ripe fruit.

Wasted apples on the orchard floor are to the bees a life-giving sweet. The ultimate indulgence, rotten apples are nectar to bees. Apples, and most fruits, are still alive when picked. They begin their death when the stem is severed from the limb that was its’ life source. The fruit continues to respire as the cells deplete the last of their oxygen. This is when they are at their sweetest, to a human palate.

However, the starch present in the apple continues to convert to sugar. We used to use a starch-iodine test, developed at Cornell University, to determine the optimal time for consumption. I’d segment the apple horizontally and spray the exposed cut with a solution of iodine and distilled water. The resulting pattern, striking in its contrasts, would denote which sections of the apple were starch and which were sugar. Cornell created charts showing the stages of ripeness and suggestions for when to pick for storage or for fresh eating.

Who knew there was so much science to apple picking? After two decades’ experience of picking apples and comparing charts, now we just take a bite. If an apple is red, it must be ripe, right? Hold off on that assumption. Some apple varieties have orange skin, or canary yellow, or green, or purple with red streaks. It’s easy to get a bellyache from tasting slightly under-ripe apples; I know.

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