People always ask me to send them fresh Washington cherries or apples while I'm up there. The problem is that cherries have a very short shelf-life and do not travel well. As soon as they're picked, cherries are run through a sorting/sizing facility where they are cleaned and packaged. They are almost immediately shipped out to grocery stores all across the country and overseas. The cherries that show up in our local Walmart here in Pensacola were literally picked within the last couple of days – certainly within the past week, nearly as fast as I could get them to you via UPS. Because I ain't sending them overnight.
Apples are a different story. We all like to dream about picking a nice, juicy, sweet red apple off a tree at the peak of ripeness – what a treat! Unfortunately that's not the case. Apples are picked and then put in “CA” (controlled atmosphere) rooms where they are kept chilled until their sugars fully develop. The bag of apples you buy in Walmart today were very likely picked last season. It's why we can have apples all year 'round. It's an amazing fruit!
Why not leave the apples on the tree until they ripen naturally? Well... If you have only a couple of apple trees that might work. If you're a big production grower with thousands of acres of trees, the harvest must be carefully planned and orchestrated. You can't wait until all of the apples are at peak ripeness or you'd never get them all picked in time. Like cherries, apples are all picked by hand.
As the apple ripens, the last joint on the stem going into it gets weak. When the apple gets too heavy the stem will break there and it will fall off the tree on its own. Some growers resort to spraying one of several products colloquially known as “stop-drop” to delay this event if the apples are not quite red enough to pick. It's better to pick them just before they fall off and bring them to the CA room to complete the ripening process.
It's about five miles from our company heliport in Monse, Washington (what we call “the LZ”) down to the Brewster Airport. There are two ways you can get there. One is to cross the Okanogan River and take the highway down. Or you can take a dirt road that also parallels the river and goes through apple and cherry orchards. We travel between these two places a lot; we almost always take the highway. The dirt road is very dusty and rough, and slower.
One day in October, just before I left, my buddy Chris and I headed to the airport from the LZ. ”Dirt road?” Chris asked. Fine by me, we were in no hurry. The apple harvest was in full swing. Big eighteen-wheeler flatbeds stacked high with apple bins shuttled up and down the roads nonstop. Our plan was to find a section that hadn't been picked yet and grab a couple of Fuji's or Honeycrisps. Which we did- barely. Almost everything had been picked. But we got a handful of nice, red ones that looked ripe.
We got to the airport and washed the apples off. Eagerly, we bit into them, hoping for the best. Unfortunately they were mealy and not all that sweet. Instead of a treat, what a disappointment! They were so bad that we threw them away.
When I was growing up in New York City, the Red Delicious was the standard apple as far as we knew. It had that traditional apple shape. A good one was sweet and juicy – nothing better! Unfortunately it also had a fairly tough skin (it was a New York apple, after all) and the pulp could be yellowish.
But times...and tastes...and chemistry...have changed. There's a whole science to it; apples get engineered. Now the popular apple is called a Honeycrisp. Developed in the 1970's, it was patented in 1988 and finally released to the public in 1991. Growers in Brewster, Washington are ripping out orchards of Red Delicious and planting Honeycrisps instead.
If you've never had a Honeycrisp, you owe it to yourself to try one. They're amazing. They're big and round. They're sweet and juicy and the skin is not tough. Bite into one and you'll go, “Now THIS is what an apple should taste like!” Once you eat a Honeycrisp, any other apple will seem like you're eating a...well...a pear.
The beauty is that you can have one in January. But it was probably picked in October. Last October.