Malus in Latin means apple, as well as evil. No wonder the apple embodies both good and bad, purity and eroticism.
When I moved to Old Frog Pond Farm, I found many rows of Red Delicious apples growing in the orchard. The flavor of Red Delicious is quite boring as apples go, so I decided I would change them over to another variety. To do this, you need scion wood — the term for the small twigs of first-year growth that are used to graft onto a trunk, branch or rootstock.
I went to a scion wood exchange and grabbed a twig of the Almata apple along with several other varieties that were spread across an old pool table. Not knowing anything about its characteristics, I chose Almata because it was named after one of the largest cities in Kazakhstan, Almaty which translates as “full of apples”. Almaty is near the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains, the forests that are the birthplace of our domesticated apple. Today, apples, pears, plums, and cherries still grow in the wild in these forests and are sold in the markets of Almaty.
I took my scion wood home and grafted a Red Delicious tree with the Almata twig. Three years later, when this tree developed its first flower buds, I was surprised. Apple blossom buds are usually enrobed in a pink sheath, which then open to pale white flower petals. The Almata buds weren’t pink, but dark red, like the scarlet letter adorning Hester Prynne’s chest in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. Four days later, when the orchard was a cloud of white petals, this tree’s blossoms opened to a lovely pink. When the leaves came in, they were not green but a bronzy color similar to some crab apples. After pollination, its dime-sized apples were dark red, not green, like every other apple in the orchard.
All summer long I kept my eye on this tree. Friends walking with me through the orchard would remark, “What’s that?” pointing to the Almata. It was easy to see that this tree was marked. The apples were quite small, but perfectly formed and deep red. In mid-August, I stopped by the Almata to taste one of its fruits. My large bite of apple exposed deep plum-colored flesh. It was crazy and wonderful, and all wrong. It didn’t look like an apple at all, but more like a ravishing purple plum. It was hard and sour, not yet ripe.
Charmed, I hurried back to the house to share my discovery with my family. I looked up Almata and learned that this red-fleshed apple was developed by Dr. Nels Hansen at the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station. Dr. Hansen was inspired to breed a red-fleshed eating apple after seeing a red-fleshed wild apple on an 1897 trip to Russia. The Almata is the cross he made between a Russian apple, the Beautiful Arcade and Fluke 38, a crabapple.
Even though our Almatas were not quite ripe, I decided to use a few of them in an apple galette. The red Almata wove lovely red ribbons through the white apples of the dessert; it held its color even when cooked. I made a Russian apple cake next and was again delighted by the red slices of the Almata flowing through the cake.
Even when fully ripe, the Almata’s taste was still sharp. But biting through its deep red skin and into the ruby-colored flesh, the sensual appeal was greater than biting into any white-fleshed apple.
Although some people say that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually a pomegranate, I disagree. I can imagine the serpent winding around a branch, tempting Eve with a ripe, red-fleshed apple. How could she have refused? Would you have resisted?
If you come for an orchard visit I'll show you the tree. But be prepared; there just might be a snake!