September 29th, 2017

All hail the Tango apple

I’ve sung the praises of the Jazz apple, still a great favorite of mine. But recently I’ve been hard-pressed (hard-pressed, get it?) to find any in my local stores, and so I’ve been forced to try other varieties.

Most of my experiments have been failures. I prefer very hard apples, and most aren’t hard enough. And I prefer apples with a complexity of sweet/sour flavor. The Jazz has both of these characteristics, and what’s more the Jazz batches don’t differ too much in quality from each other.

But I’m happy to say I’ve found a new contender: the Tango (is it an accident or not that both have names that are musical and dance references?). The Tango is very crisp, and the taste is very aromatic, almost like roses (or like I’d imagine roses would taste). Love it.

The Tango was first marketed in 2009 and has been widely available only since 2013, although my first encounter with it was just the other day. It’s a cross between a Honeycrisp and a Zestar (interestingly enough, I just had my first Zestar about two weeks ago, and although it had a good taste it was too soft for me):

The name SweeTango is a brand name of the ‘Minneiska’ apple, and is a registered trademark owned by the University of Minnesota. Like the ‘Honeycrisp’, the ‘Minneiska’ has much larger cells than most apples, which shatter when bitten to fill the mouth with juice.

Indeed. About that taste:

The ‘Minneiska’ has a texture similar to ‘Honeycrisp’ with a slightly tart and citric quality. The name “SweeTango” is a portmanteau of the words sweet and tangy.

There’s that complexity of taste I look for.

Here’s an article from the 2011 New Yorker:

Like Honeycrisp, SweeTango has much larger cells than other apples, and when you bite into it the cells shatter, rather than cleaving along the cell walls, as is the case with most popular apples. The bursting of the cells fills your mouth with juice. Chunks of SweeTango snap off in your mouth with a loud cracking sound. Although a crisp texture is the single most prized quality in an apple—even more desirable than taste, according to one study—crispness is more a matter of acoustics than of mouthfeel. Vibrations pass along the lower jaw and set the cochlea trembling. Biting into a really crisp apple, one feels, in the words of Edward Bunyard, the author of “The Anatomy of Dessert,” “a certain joy in crashing through living tissue, a memory of Neanderthal days.”…

By the time of the Civil War, there were many kinds of apples growing across the United States, but most of them didn’t taste very good, and as a rule people didn’t eat them. Cider was cheaper to make than beer, and many settlers believed fermented drinks were safer than water. Everyone drank hard cider. President John Adams drank a tankard before breakfast. Babies drank it before going to bed. At the end of the nineteenth century, when Carry Nation took up her axe in the service of the temperance movement, she likely employed it on apple trees as well as saloons. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the apple had a serious public-relations problem.

The solution, as Michael Pollan relates in his book “The Botany of Desire,” was to promote the eating of apples as a healthy snack. J. T. Stinson, a fruit specialist, first used the phrase “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” at the St. Louis World’s Fair, in 1904. (He adapted the slogan from the traditional English proverb “An apple before going to bed keeps the doctor from earning his bread.”) Many cider-makers had long prized the chance seedlings, discovered in their fields and orchards, that yielded unexpectedly delectable eating apples.

I happen to like pursuing these so-called heirloom apples. But Tango isn’t an heirloom; it’s relatively new.

That New Yorker article goes into the story of how supermarket apples had devolved (by the time of my youth) into the mediocre Big Three (or two, depending on how you count): Macintosh, and red and yellow Delicious. Although yellows could sometimes be very good if crisp, I stopped eating apples a long time ago because I found the taste and texture of the supermarket apples of the time to be bad. But now we have an embarrassment of apple riches, not just at farmstands but in the supermarkets, and not just at fancy markets such as Whole Foods but at our local neighborhood chains.

According to the article, it was the Granny Smith that turned the tide. My trademark.

[ADDENDUM: And here’s a job I think I’d like:

In the fall, during the apple harvest, Bedford tastes apples from blossom times past, up to five hundred apples a day, in the hope of finding that one apple in ten thousand that will be released as a commercial variety. I spent an afternoon with him in early September, walking through long rows of young trees, and tasting apples of every imaginable size, shape, hue, and flavor, from musky melonlike apples to bright lemony apples and apples that tasted like licorice. “We don’t actually swallow, and we don’t really even have time to spit,” Bedford explained. “You just kind of hold a bit in your mouth for a while, until you get the flavor, and then let it fall out.”

If a tree produces exceptionally good apples for several years in a row, it achieves élite status and is awarded a number. Four clones are made from the mother tree’s wood, and those trees are grown in another orchard on the property, under commercial conditions. To evaluate the élite trees, Bedford carries a field notebook with twenty categories on a page, which, in addition to the “organoleptics”—all the sensory stuff, like flavor, texture, and color—include tree size, shape, and yield. He scores each category from one to nine. He generally continues these yearly evaluations for a decade or longer, in order to subject the trees to a representative range of extreme summers and winters and drought and flood, and in the hope of ferreting out all the quirks that apple trees are heir to. Some are wild in their youth but eventually settle down, while others bear fruit every other year; some bear smaller fruits as the trees age, while others drop their apples before they’re ripe.

Finally, a truly outstanding apple is named, the tree is patented, and clones are released to nurseries, where thousands of copies of the trees are made and sold to growers, for which the university collects a royalty of around a dollar per tree during the life of the patent. Large color posters of the five apples released during Bedford’s time at the agricultural station decorate his office, their swollen flesh glistening with beads of moisture, like centerfold pinups in a mechanic’s shop.

Much, much more good stuff at the link.]

16 Responses to “All hail the Tango apple”

  1. miklos000rosza Says:

    My favorite apple for a long time has been the Gala.

  2. Ann Says:

    The Winter Banana apple is the very best.

  3. Surellin Says:

    Sheepsnose. It’s an heirloom apple that I had once, a long time ago. Maybe I’m misremembering, but it was more complicated-tasting than The Big Three, as you put it.

  4. Jim Miller Says:

    When I was growing up in Washington state’s apple country, I noticed that the farmers grew Red Delicious and Golden Delicious — because those varieties sold — but often ate Winesaps. (And of course often made cider from them.)

    Now, I am quite fond of Cripp’s Pinks (usually sold under the Pink Lady trade name).

    It would be fun some time to get a group together and do some blind tast tests. I assume very few of us could tell the difference between our favorite apples and similar varieties.

    By the way, consumers made Red Delicious less tasty, because they chose the apples that looked best — which were the deep red ones.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Jim Miller:

    I think you’d enjoy the New Yorker article I linked to. All of that is discussed in some depth.

  6. arfldgrs Says:

    We like jonathans, but i love crab apples
    we just had a mango apple.. (hybrid) very yum
    but then again… we go picking and some of the japanese types are really good if you like sweet, large and yellow

    next try rambutan… (not an apple, looks awful, nice taste like melon leechy, etc)

    a few days ago, three exactly
    the man of apples was born
    John Chapman

    Jonny Appleseed
    an evil man who sowed invasive species (modern take)
    a wonderful person who seeded the place with food bearing trees instead of pincones

    John Chapman (September 26, 1774 – March 18, 1845), called Johnny Appleseed, was an American pioneer nurseryman who introduced apple trees to large parts of Pennsylvania, Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as the northern counties of present-day West Virginia. He became an American legend while still alive, due to his kind, generous ways, his leadership in conservation, and the symbolic importance he attributed to apples. He was also a missionary for The New Church (Swedenborgian) and the inspiration for many museums and historical sites such as the Johnny Appleseed Museum in Urbana, Ohio, and the Johnny Appleseed Heritage Center in between Lucas, Ohio, and Mifflin, Ohio. The TinCaps, a minor league baseball team in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is where Chapman spent his final years, is named in his hono

    Most people dont know he was real

    most people dont know bram bones and ichabod crane were also real and were in sleepy hollow ny…

    yes, some of the tall tales of america are real
    babe the big blue ox is not
    nor is john henry..
    [but it would have been great to see such a man]

  7. Jim Miller Says:

    Cripps Pink, not Cripp’s Pink,

    (Don’t want to get Australians mad at me.)

  8. om Says:


    There is a new variety of apple cultivar “Cosmic Crisp” soon to be released from Washington State University:

    The selection and breeding of apple varieties for crispness has been advanced by technology specifically a digital “crispness” tester (MOHR Digitest 2 – MDT2) which can replace the guy or gal doing the “bite” test. Anyway, the MDT-2 is being used by growers (to determine when to pick and when to move the apples from controlled atmosphere/cold storage to market) and by researchers. Data from the tester is digital and quantifiable, makes crispness a “hard” number.

    MDT Agricultural Penetrometer and Texture Analyzer
    MDT Series Automated Materials Testers

    Fruit penetrometers and texture analyzers give accurate, repeatable results.
    Saves 50% or more of the time you spend testing and generates automated reports.
    Also use for general materials testing.

  9. Dobbins Says:

    The Wealthy apple, and the Snow Sweet apple are both varieties produced in Minnesota; hence able to withstand very cold winters.

    Both apples produce well, are crisp and make excellent pies. Superb for just eating…….sweet tartness.

  10. Jim Miller Says:

    neo – Thanks for the reminder. I assumed the “New Yorker” article was similar to the NYT article I read, linked to, and wrote about some years ago.

    And here’s a tip in return, which may be new to some of your readers: When apples were sold from bushel boxes, they were advertised with “apple box art”. I’m not saying it is great art, but many will find the images great fun. (Use a Google image search on the phrase, if you want to see examples.)

    There’s a Texaco station a couple of miles from where I live that has a nice collection. I like to say, half jokingly, that it is the best art gallery in Kirkland.

  11. Qae Says:

    I mentioned Sweetango apples on this very blog in a comment waaaaay back in 2014. They remain my personal favorite and I’m glad you’ve given them a try.

  12. Gringo Says:

    I grew up in apple orchard country, where you could pick a half bushel for a buck or two. Macs were OK, but Ida Red was my favorite. Sorry, not THAT Ida Red. 🙂

  13. Frog Says:

    My understanding is that apple seeds mutate like crazy, which is why seeds from a great tree, fruitwise, do not yield daughter trees with the same quality fruit. Thus, cloning (taking grafts) is the only way to reproduce a specific strain,
    Apple trees live for about 80 yrs max. So well-established orchards constantly cut the older ones down, yielding timber that makes wonderful smoke. Think applewood-smoked bacon!

  14. MollyNH Says:

    Courtland makes a great pie, bakes up good for folks who want to pass up all those crust calories, yummy out of hand too. Just cannot abide ” Delicious. red or yellow”. It would be too akin to riding that absurd train with Gov Moonbeam as the only other passenger.

  15. Sharon W Says:

    I bought a bag of Sweetango apples at Trader Joe’s a couple weeks ago. Perfect blend of sweet-tart, crisp and delicious. My new favorite.

  16. Susanamantha Says:

    Jonathans do it for me, both for baking and eating out of hand.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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