I confess, this entry was going to go up months ago but then I got caught up in finishing my Master’s. Figured late is better than never :-).
For the past few years, my family has been on a quiet mission. My Grandmother, now in her nineties and who I’ve mentioned before on this blog, grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. She once told us about the best apple jelly made from Wolf River apples, and that the apples had enough natural pectin to gel on their own, which was convenient when living high up on the mountain and in lean times. My Mom also remembers the homemade apple jelly my Great Grandmother made and its unique taste. These legendary apples are also humongous, with tales that a single one could fill a pie.
Unfortunately, in our part of the country, the variety has a very short growing season, and we missed finding Wolf River at farmer’s markets for two years in a row.
By pure chance, I went to the state farmer’s market early last fall and Wolf River was just coming into season. One vendor had a lone bushel box, and after telling her what my family wanted to do with them, she sold me the whole thing.
We’d never made jelly before, but my Sister and I got together on a Sunday afternoon and worked late into the night. Our Grandmother walked us through the process on speakerphone in the kitchen. We soon learned these apples were strange, and immediately cooked into a thick sauce, instead of keeping any kind of shape. Wolf Rivers are famous for making apple butter, and I can see why, but all of the how-to YouTube videos I’d seen had shapely stewed apples in a nice clear juice. When it came time to strain our brew, we had to dilute the mush and watch the trickle of murky liquid ever so slowly fill a four-quart bowl.
We used the 1 cup juice to 1 cup sugar ratio and worked in batches cooking the jelly. It was neat how by the end of the night my Sister and I could taste the liquid and know when it was ready. Terrified of the idea of sharing botulism with my relatives, we also boiled everything, and then gave the finished jars a good boil (because USDA said so).
The best way I can describe the flavor is rustic. It’s sour, but not as tart as Granny Smith, and almost savory, but when cooked it magically becomes the quintessential country apple flavor. I made an apple pie with some of the extras and it was marvelous. I may not find them again for some time, but these would be my go-to baking apple, along with Arkansas Black.
In the end we got through half the bushel before realizing we’d filled every available pot in my Sister’s kitchen, and were rewarded with eighteen big and little jars of gelatinous substance, which we gave to our relatives at Christmas as a surprise. We also paired it with a family photo album, which had some neat 1800’s tintypes and other gems of our history in western North Carolina.