You know you are an old timer if….. you remember the Limbertwig apple. It was abundant here in the mountains two generations ago. Over the years, it has slowly given way to more modern apples; the pretty to look at, wax covered, cardboard tasting supermarket apples of today. Once you have tasted the flavor of an old fashioned Limbertwig, its flavor stays with you and its juiciness returns in your mind as you think of the almost extinct delicacy.
Granny always used the limbertwig for storage through the winter. She said it kept better and the longer you stored it, the more flavorful and juicy it became. I don’t know if it was that, or just getting one out of the apple hole when it was cold and snow was on the ground and being able to eat a fresh tasting, crisp apple. The limbertwig I remember wasn’t a pretty to look at apple, like the hybrids of today. It was sort of greenish yellow with big brown spots on it, but after it was cooked or just eaten raw, you never forget the flavor. Granny would get ready to store the apples in the fall, when the air started to be crisp and you could feel cold weather in the air. She always let me (after I begged and begged) gather the apples for storing. This way, I got to climb the tree and easily pick them off so they weren’t bruised as they would be if they fell off the tree and you picked them up off the ground. They kept better if they weren’t bruised. I never used a ladder to climb up and get the apples for fear of being called a sissy for using a ladder. I had to climb up to live up to my reputation as being a “tomboy”. Besides, the limbertwig got its name from being just that, its branches were thin and limber which gave an overall weeping growth to the tree. You had to be careful and stand on the stronger limbs and reach way out to pick the apples off the more delicate limbs. On occasion, though, I learned that, like the apples, the human body will also bruise when picked up off the ground after falling from the apple tree.
Granny had an apple hole behind the barn on the north side. She said the ground on the north side stayed colder in the winter and was better for storage. The hole was already there as far back as I remember, cleaned out each year as a bird does it’s nest in a birdhouse. There was a deep layer of dried grass on the bottom, with a layer of apples one deep on top of that. Then the first layer was covered with a layer of dried grass, then another layer of apples, on up to about four layers. On the top of the last layer, after the apples were covered with the dried grass, the dirt was placed back on top. It was a treat to go out there and very easily dig down and bring out a fresh juicy apple, or two, or three if an apple pie was in order.
The mountains and valleys and meadows grew an abundance of apple trees back then. We usually started out with Early Harvest and June apples. These apples made the best applesauce. They were cooked with the skin still on because the early ones had a very thin skin and cooked up real nice. My aunt Texa could make the most mouth watering applesauce stack cake. It had about eight very thin layers of a sort of molasses cake, with spiced applesauce in between the layers. The cake got better each day as the layers became more and more soggy. She also made the best applesauce pie. I have never been able to duplicate this pie, nor find a recipe for it. I wish I had watched her make one and remembered how to. The applesauce was thick and sliced like pumpkin pie, but it was a two crust pie. I can taste those applesauce pies now, what a great memory!
There were so many kinds of apples that granny had specific apples to do specific things with. She had a cider apple, which was usually a Pippin. She used Wolf River for a canning and drying apple. Another good old apple is the Sheepnose (or Crow’s egg). The Sheepnose is a rough skinned apple that becomes dry when it gets too ripe, but it was good for sulfuring or bleaching. Granny used the apples with the tartest flavor for making apple butter. She had a big copper kettle that we would fill and cook for hours outside on an open flame. She had a big wooden apple butter paddle that she kept the apple butter stirred with after she had put the spices in. The apple butter had to cook very slowly, over a small fire, nearly all day long, stirring and stirring. One old apple tree near the barn she called a “horse apple”. I always thought it was only to feed the horses, but found out it was good to eat too.
The bleached (sulfured) apples were as good as a fresh apple, all white and crispy. They never turned brown and wrinkly. Granny would peel and slice usually Winesap apples. She had a wooden barrel with a cast iron pot in the bottom. She had an old axe without a handle that she used just for bleaching apples. She would heat the axe in the woodstove until it was red hot, take it out and put it in the cast iron pot inside the barrel. On top of the hot axe, she would put about a teaspoon of sulfur that she had gotten from the drugstore in either Greeneville or Marshall. This created a smoke and it would fill the barrel. It didn’t smell too good right at first, but the apples never had a smell when they were done. She would then take about two gallons of the sliced up apples and suspend them in a loosely woven sack inside the barrel, running a stick through the tied end so you could put a lid on the barrel and the apples wouldn’t touch the bottom. The apples smoked in the sulfur smoke for about 30-45 minutes and then they were taken out and put in a dry cotton feed sack. We always kept these apples in a cool place, most times in the same sack. Then the procedure was repeated with another hot axe and another run of cut up apples. These bleached apples also have a flavor and crispness that you can never forget.
Gone is the art of bleaching apples, almost gone is the Limbertwig, which is now listed as an “antique” or heritage apple. The good old apples are gone in favor of bigger, better, prettier, genetically modified versions….as most things in our society have “progressed”. The late Henry Morton of Gatlinburg, Tennessee had the forethought to preserve this wonderful taste from our past. He grafted the Limbertwig and over the years he had preserved several different varieties. We owe him a debt of gratitude. If you ever get a chance to taste this treasure, please do not pass up the opportunity. It will be a taste you will never forget.
A couple in Ashe County have devoted their lives to growing, preserving and selling the old mouth watering varieties of mountain apples. Without them and their efforts, future generations would never be able to taste and witness the delightful delicacy of a heritage or “antique” apple. They own Big Horse Creek Farm (www.bighorsecreekfarm.com). The pictures shown here for the Black Limbertwig and the apple blossom are credited to them.
The old Limbertwig apple tree on the farm is long gone now, but the memory of it is stored in my mind….in a hole under a layer of cold earth and dried grass, that I can take out when I want and smell or taste a bit of yesteryear.
Written by: Judy Ricker