There is dispute on whether the plural of Spy—as in Northern Spy apple as opposed to the CIA or KGB type—is Spys or Spies. Or you can simply eliminate the problem by always following “Northern Spy” with “apples”. I will leave it to others more earnest about the name than the apple to fight that out. I’ve seen it written on antique recipe cards as Spys, so I’ll stick with that, even though the spell-checker won’t like it.
The climate along the northern tier of Pennsylvania is colder, more like New York State or southern New England. Even though Adams County PA bills itself as “Apple Capital USA” , and its apples are certainly very good, they are largely produced for the wholesale market. It’s hard to find heirloom varieties, and it’s too warm (the county sits on the Mason-Dixon line) for varieties that requires colder weather. On the upside, however, there are a number of farm markets to buy apples—as well as Pennsylvania peaches—and the National Apple Harvest Festival, held on two weekends each fall, really is a lot of fun.
I was first introduced to the Northern Spy apple many years ago, when I lived north of Scranton PA. My downstairs neighbor, Virginia, was an absolutely wonderful, smart, loving woman who’d spent much of her adult life in rural communities. Virginia knew all about apples. Many of her friends were working farmers at a time when farming truly was a family business. It was Virginia who taught me to make piecrust. (There’s another post for that), and it was she who gave me my first taste of a pie made with Northern Spys. It was, forgive the truly trite phrase, love at first bite—the perfect mix of tang and sweetness. Moreover, the apples never turned to mush. When I was living in Clarks Green PA, a nice man from Montrose up near the New York border would deliver a bushel of Northern Spys to my front porch every October. I made crisp and apples and applesauce and still had plenty not only for the Thanksgiving pies, but also for the cherry pie I used to make at the end of February, in honor of GW.
It is fair to say, more or less, that I was obsessed with Northern Spys. I still am.
After I moved from Northeastern Pennsylvania, Northern Spys became more and more illusive. I tried some at a farm stand in the Lehigh Valley once, and they were awful. It didn’t help that the stand owner had labeled them “ugly apples”. They were “ugly” only because they were being grown in a completely unsuitable terroir.
Unfortunately, our trips to New England, where you would expect to find Northern Spys, were during the summer. Northern Spys are end-of-season bounty. I went years without them. On one occasion, when we were working in north central Pennsylvania, I learned there was a Spy-producing orchard nearby. En route home, Hubby was gracious enough to go half an hour out-of-the-way, only to find that the orchard market had just closed for the season. Every time we had a fall engagement in one of the northern counties, I would do an online search to see if there were Spies nearby. No luck. Then, one year, I hit pay dirt. Hubby was off to meetings near Erie armed with the phone number and address of an orchard market I’d found online. Although it was definitely off the beaten path, he is a very sweet man and a very dutiful partner. He came home laden with apples and surprised me with another shipment a few weeks later. Stored in the bins of our extra fridge, they held up beautifully and were sufficient to keep us in pies and applesauce and crisp for months, just like in the old Clarks Green days.
Last fall, we made our annual trip north in October. For me, this was a bucket list trip—all these years, we’d never been in New England to see the autumn color. As you can imagine, I was also on a “Spy” mission. Hubby, sweet man that he is, was in his super-observant mode as we made the breathtaking trip from Bar Harbor to Western Maine. Just outside Skowhegan, tacked to a pole, he spotted a directional sign that said “orchard”. “Wanna go?” he said with a grin, as if he even had to ask. We set out across the countryside, following the signs to Cayford Orchards, where the owner proudly told us that his was a “six-generation family farm”. Pretty much makes you want to buy something just to support it, doesn’t it? Alas, among the bins of just picked apples, there were no Northern Spys. When I asked, he said, “Oh, we’re picking those at the end of the week. We’ll have them on the weekend.” He must have seen my chin drop to my toes when Hubby told him we’d be gone by then, but my mood turned from despair to elation in a flash when I heard, “But you’re welcome to pick them yourself. I’ll show you the trees.”
I am not exaggerating when I tell you this. When I saw those trees dripping Northern Spys, I felt like I did on Christmas morning in 1957, when I found that Mary Hoyer bride doll under the tree. I’d picked strawberries and blueberries, but never apples. No ladder needed—the branches bowed down to meet us. We loaded up and headed on to the next leg of our trip.
The Spys were big and healthy looking. They even proved delicious enough to eat uncooked, as Miss Puppy Clouseau will attest. That surprised me because Spys are traditionally considered a baking or sauce apple. The pies I made with them were just splendid, although God and the orchard-keeper get the credit for that. We finished the last one a few days ago.
And I’ve already started lobbying for a return trip next fall.
Photo: That’s me, apple picking at Cayford Orchards in Skowhegan, ME, with big, wind-blown hair.