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The Most Beautiful Ugly Apples

The word “russet” refers to the rough or dull patches of skin that can be found on some apple varieties, but you won’t find them in your local supermarket or grocery stores. When was the last time you saw anything other than a wall of perfect, shiny red and green apples for sale?

Some apple enthusiasts (Irish Seed Savers staff included) often refer to the russet as “lacing”, as it looks like a piece of lace covering the apple. Scarlet Crofton is a great example of this.

Scarlet Crofton

No one really knows how or when russet apples fell out of favour but it is generally thought the appearance of this ‘lacing’ was seen as a contributing factor. With the increase of industrialisation within the apple industry (producing ‘perfect’ apples) people began to associate the russet as some sort of scaring or disease. Russeting is now only largely seen in heritage varieties, due to the ‘appearance’ of these rough patches far too many heritage varieties have been cast aside in favour of modern varieties where the russet has been bred out.

In Ireland we spend €100 million a year on apples and shockingly 95 per cent of these apples are imported from New ZealandFrance and South Africa[1]. The last National Apple Orchard Census[2] (2012) by the Department of Agriculture showed that Ireland only had 45 commercial apple growers, and only two of whom grew organically. Even these Irish growers rarely if ever grow russet apples. Have you ever wondered how these apples get to the supermarket looking so perfect? Given that you can only harvest apples once a year it’s worth noting that the majority of fruits on sale are six months old, and some even older.

Rows & Rows of the same shiny apples.


Large supermarket chains like Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s etc. have freely admitted that some of their ‘fresh’ selling apples were really picked between six and twelve months previously. AgroFresh a ‘Leader in differentiated freshness-keeping technologies’ have developed a technology that allows apples to be stored / transported from as far away as New Zealand. The apples are placed in warehouses or containers with a ‘modified atmosphere’ that prevents ripening.

This technology is known as SmartFresh and works by using a sugar-based powder containing the active ingredient 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP). Mixed with tap water 1-MCP is released into the air inside the warehouse or container. The 1-MCP blocks the fruit’s natural release of ethylene, which prevents the fruit from ripening, until they are taken out of cold storage.[3] This allows us to eat fruit out of season all year round, but at what cost to our heritage varieties?

Here at Irish Seed Savers we have over 170 varieties of rare heritage apple trees in our orchards, with our focus being on conservation, propagation and distribution, thus keeping these older varieties alive. Being at the forefront of apple conservation in Ireland we feel that russets are some of the best tasting, yet overlooked, apples to be found. Unfortunately most people are now accustomed to the bland tasting (and looking) commercial varieties, but if you set aside the demand for the ‘perfect’ apple you will discover a myriad of tastes.

Now taste is subjective of course, but the flavour that comes from a russet is far more established and distinct. For this reason they are very popular with craft cider producers in search of diverse tastes. They strike a subtle balance of acidity and sugars, with a characteristic aftertaste. A lot of russets in our collection are crisp eating apples and their fragrant oil content can give them a subtle citrus taste. Russets have a tendency to be good keepers and if stored properly can still be in good condition 3 – 6 months later, often sweeting a little in storage.

Some find the roughness of the skin detracts from the apple, it can be corky, grainy or even bumpy. Personally, I think the opposite and consider it a very attractive feature. The darkness of the russet opposing the fruits natural colouring, usually emphasising the blushing of pink, copper or bronze colouring as the fruit reaches maturity.

White Crofton
Gibbons Russet

As you walk around the supermarket doing your weekly shopping and come across the apple displays I’d encourage you to keep walking by, abandon the pursuit of the perfect apple. Attend your local farmers markets on the hunt for a russet and once found I’m sure you’ll tell yourself “that’s the best tasting apple I’ve had in years”. If your hunt doesn’t bear any fruit you can always call Irish Seed Savers, purchase a rare heritage variety and grow your own. To view our range of heritage varieties please click here.


[1] https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/food-and-drink/how-do-you-like-them-apples-the-growth-of-an-irish-industry-1.2780423
[2]https://www.agriculture.gov.ie/media/migration/farmingsectors/horticulture/horticulturestatistics/NationalAppleOrchardCensus2012221013.pdf
[3] https://www.agrofresh.com/smartfresh-technology

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