If there is such a thing as a superstar apple breeder, David Bedford is one of them. He and his team at the University of Minnesota are responsible for game-changing apples like Honeycrisp, SweeTango, and Zestar. He joined Lynne Rossetto Kasper in The Splendid Table studios for an apple tasting, including the Rave/First Kiss, which will be released in 2017.
[Ed. note: You can check out The Splendid Table's apple recipe collection here.]
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You worked with the team that developed the Honeycrisp, but what were some of the other apples that you've worked with?
David Bedford: Honeycrisp was certainly our best known release, but we have a few newer ones. Zestar and SnowSweet are two that have come out since the Honeycrisp.
LRK: Those are in stores now?
DB: That's right. Probably our best known "child" of Honeycrisp, if we would say it that way, would be SweeTango. I also brought another one today that's a brand new release that we haven't even talked about yet.
LRK: I'm thinking about how taste has changed, that now we seem to like sweetness, but there are also bold flavors, spice, crunch, and salt. Does any of that affect how you think out the development of a new apple?
DB: It does. If I go back to my childhood, my career was almost derailed by a single apple, and that was Red Delicious. I was raised on Red Delicious and lost interest in apples because of that. It is and was a beautiful apple, but the flavor was not. I came into it thinking that apples are good for you, but not that excited about it.
Somewhere along the line, I became exposed to the range of apple flavors and tastes and textures that we hadn't seen. I fell in love with it, and I found a good home here at the University of Minnesota, where our purpose is to make apples exciting to eat.
LRK: Do you remember the apple that was the "A-ha!" moment for you?
Lynne and David (Photo: Jennifer Russell)
DB: The one that I remember the best, certainly, was Honeycrisp. That was so different. When I first tasted it, I was a young man just out of grad school, and I didn't know the whole range of apples and what was possible. When I tasted Honeycrisp, it reset my brain as to what was possible, and it was so good. I wasn't even sure what it was. It was a totally unexpected experience.
LRK: The thing about a Honeycrisp that's so interesting is the crispness, but it's not just that it's sweet. It has so much going on, a complexity, and that's an exciting piece of fruit.
The other thing is size. I just started buying the crabapples, the little guys, and there is one that is in the market now called the Chestnut crabapple. I started tasting these little apples, which I always associated with pickling or making some sort of condiment. They are sensational! They're the perfect size for me to slice into a salad or to munch on. Is there a future now with smaller apples?
DB: Yes. We have this whole genetic range of sizes. When apples were originally in the wild, they were quite small. They were meant to feed animals more than us, and as we've developed apples and bred new varieties, we've tended to make them bigger so they're more showy, but there is a limit to that idea.
I think apples, in particular the big apples, look nice on the grocery shelf or sitting in front of you on the table, but it's hard to eat an apple the size of a softball. We are not looking for bigger. We're happy to have a whole range of apples, and a couple of the ones that I brought with me are fairly small. Tennis ball-size and smaller is an easy apple to fit in your hand. It fits your mouth. You can always finish it, and my theory is, if it's not enough, have a second one.
LRK: Are we going to see more little apples?
DB: I don't know that it's an emerging trend, but let's say that the small ones are not going away completely.
LRK: Are apples getting sweeter?
DB: As apples are eaten by larger groups of people, there is more interest in sweeter apples. I wouldn't say that we're making them sweeter, but we certainly have a wider range. Still, we see that people tend to like a little more acidity with their apples. It has to be a balance.
LRK: A sweet/acid balance.
DB: The classic apple flavor is sweet and tart. But now, as we see apples being eaten in more populations, and as we get closer to the equator, there's less tolerance or interest in acid. We have to have a whole range of apples.
LRK: Are my favorite tart pie apples, the crispy ones, going to be ebbing or going away?
DB: I think there'll always be a market for them. I hope we never go back to the point of Red Delicious -- I'm sorry I keep going back to my old nemesis -- where we have one apple that tries to keep everybody happy.
LRK: It's the blandest. There was a time when that was all we could get.
Photo: Jennifer Russell
DB: As part of my job, I have to taste about 500 apples a day, and we're looking for the newest and best things in our breeding program. The two most important characteristics that we're always looking for are texture and flavor.
LRK: I see that you brought some friends with you that I should describe. What we have in front of us are ten different apples. There are three smaller apples here. One is almost black. It's this deep, deep, almost black crimson. One is bright yellow, another one is speckled, and then we have some apples that are round, and some that are heart-shaped. There's an apple over here that looks a lot like a Red Delicious, and there's an apple that ate the city of St. Paul. This thing is huge. It is the size of a grapefruit or very close to it. David, after all this talk of the small apple, where did this baby come from?
DB: That's one that came through different crosses we were making. We weren't intentionally trying to develop a grapefruit-sized apple, but it came. Our intention was to get a crisp-textured apple that was low acid. It happened to turn out to be a pretty big one.
LRK: It's a beautiful-looking thing. It's red. It's the apple you bring to the teacher kind of apple. What is the name of it?
DB: It's just a number still. It hasn't been released, so it's just part of our breeding program. If things go well, maybe next time I see you, it will have a name and be released.
LRK: Let's taste. Where do you want to begin?
DB: We're going to start with Honeycrisp, because most people know that now, and it represents a breakthrough in the apple-breeding world.
LRK: This is about the size of a baseball and a beautiful red color. This smells so good. It's tart and sweet, and it just hits the palate! You know what I've always loved? The balance of this apple.
DB: I agree. For us, the best compliment you can pay an apple flavor -- it doesn't sound exciting -- is to say it's well-balanced. It will have this component of sugar and this component of acidity, and without that, either it becomes insipid, or it becomes blindingly tart. This straddles that middle ground right away.
LRK: I remember you telling us you took 30 years to develop this apple.
DB: That's right.
LRK: What's next?
DB: What I'll show you now is one of Honeycrisp's progeny, a child of Honeycrisp that has just been introduced and starting to make its way to the marketplace, and that is SweeTango.
LRK: SweeTango's a little smaller, but the color is similar. It's a red apple, and it has that heart shape. It's a great name, by the way. Who comes up with the names?
DB: It used to be a fairly simple, just a small group of us. Now it's gotten more and more complex with trademarking and whatnot.
LRK: It looks like the Honeycrisp. It has the whitish or cream-colored flesh, but a different texture. It feels like it's finer-grained. It's crisp, but this tastes like...there's a wine quality to it, a winy sort of depth to it. The sweetness is there. It's not quite as tart as the Honeycrisp. Was that the goal with this?
DB: Yes, to some degree. We're trying to always produce something different. There's no point in reproducing things with just slight differences, and for us, SweeTango has an intense balance of sugar and acid.
LRK: The aftertaste is acid and sugar. It's lingering and very pleasant. You want more; in fact, your mouth waters.
DB: The next one I'd like to show you is a brand new child of Honeycrisp. We're just introducing it.
LRK: We've got the son of, the return of, and the revenge of Honeycrisp.
DB: This is one where we're just introducing the name. You're the first person that we've talked about it with publicly.
This was a variety that we tested for a number of years. It was 17 years from the breeding until the release, and it was tested all along under its number, which was Minnesota 1955. Now, we're releasing it under two trademark names. The national trademark name will be Rave, and we're also going to have a second trademark for Minnesota-grown fruit to distinguish that. That name will be First Kiss. It happens to be the first apple of the season, so we played on that characteristic.
LRK: This looks like a Red Delicious. It's the heart shape.
DB: That's right, but I think you'll find there's very little similarity inside. I hope.
LRK: The flesh is creamy, but it smells different. It's more of an old-fashioned apple smell.
The Rave/First Kiss apple (Photo: Jennifer Russell)
DB: It's very juicy and a little tarter than the other two.
LRK: It's still crisp. This is fabulous. I can see this, not just for pie, but I could see this sauteed with a piece of fish. This is delicious. It really is.
DB: I think it's a memorable eating experience, which is the goal in our apple breeding.
LRK: It almost tastes like there's been a little lemon juice and sugar mixed into a complex apple flavor. Whereas the SweeTango reminded me of a wine, with that kind of depth, this...it's not tasting of citrus, but it reminds you of citrus, and it has that freshness to it.
DB: This will be available in 2017.
LRK: Any other children of Honeycrisp?
DB: I'd like to show you the grandparent of Honeycrisp, and that would make it the great-grandparent of the other two that we've eaten. I don't know if you're going to like it or not, but this will be the most uniquely flavored apple you've ever had.
LRK: This is small and rounder, and it looks like it's striped with gold and red. The nametag says "Frostbite." This is a Minnesota apple, right?
DB: That's right. You can see this is an apple that's better meant for radio than TV.
LRK: I see what you mean. The flesh has a yellowish tint to it, very pleasant. You get this hint of pineapple or vanilla. It's crisp, it has a finer texture, but it doesn't have the intensity of flavor that we tasted from the other three.
DB: When you look at them side by side, you couldn't imagine this being the grandparent of these three.
LRK: How many parents does the Honeycrisp have?
DB: Two parents, and I don't have them with me today. I just have the grandparent, because that's where that unusual flavor comes from. It's been moderated in Honeycrisp. We've raised the sugar and acid so that the tutti frutti flavor isn't so apparent.
LRK: We don't have time for all these apples, but there is one apple here that I have to try. It's almost black. It's small, round, probably about two inches in diameter, and I've never seen an apple that color. I'm really curious as to what this is. Does it have a name yet?
DB: It doesn't. It's part of our breeding program, and you're right, the outside is unique. It is very dark red, but I think you're going to be surprised. The real unique feature of this apple is inside.
LRK: I can see the five-pointed star of the core, and then pale pink, and it's coral along the skin. You have to name this something like the "Cha-Cha-Cha" or the "Mystery." It's not just a pretty face. It has flavor. It's beautiful.
DB: The intent was to see if we can have a red-colored flesh or pink-colored flesh. We still have to work on the other characteristics: the texture, the flavors, all those things. You're seeing an early view of it.
LRK: It's like starting with the makeup and then working backwards.