Fameuse, with its fiery-red solid or striped tender skin and brilliant, arctic-white flesh, is so juicy and aromatic that, even today, enthusiasts praise its flavor as being superior to other cultivars—then launch into reasons why the apple is, and should be, relegated to antique apple status.
Fameuse can self pollinate (though is more productive when cross pollinated) and may even have bright, crimson streaks in its flesh near the peel.
Thought to be introduced to Quebec, Canada, from French seeds in the early 1600s (though some sources state it originated in Canada as late as the 1700s), Fameuse quickly became one of the most popular cultivars in the region, was widely planted there, and remained the favorite variety for two centuries. During that time, it was exported in barrels to England in large quantities despite its relatively poor shelf life, and it managed to win honors at British horticultural expositions for its exceptional quality. The cold winters and short summers of Quebec and New England seemed ideal for the hardy apple.
Poet Robert Frost, whose Vermont apple orchard was the subject of numerous of his poems, raised Northern Spy, McIntosh, Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Red Astrachan in his orchard. But it was a special variety, the Fameuse, that he planted close to his stone home. Today, the Frost Heritage Tree is being propagated as part of a project to create a display orchard at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum site in Shaftsbury, Vermont.
It is reported that in the late 1800s, either an unknown disease or a killing frost wiped out most of the Fameuse trees in the entire growing region. The variety never recovered its popularity after that. Surviving whatever had claimed so many Fameuse trees, McIntosh, likely an offspring of Fameuse which also was hardy, had good flavor, and stored well, supplanted Fameuse’s popularity by the 1900s, and what Fameuse trees remained, all but died out by midcentury.
The subacid, strawberry-perfumed variety is also known as Snow Apple, Snow Apple of Quebec, and Chimney Point, among many other common names.
“The flavor of Fameuse, once tasted, is never forgotten,” said Fred Sherrington, a New York grower who was raised on a ranch in southern Quebec that grew the Fameuse as late as the 1950s. Now in his sixties, he remembers the apple well. “There is no other apple that has the distinctive ‘come on’ flavor,” he said. “It is very sweet. And, since the fruit is not very hard, one wonders if the whole purpose of this apple was to contain and deliver the juice of it, which, while eating, reminds one of mulled cider.”
Sherrington believes that less flavorful varieties have taken Fameuse’s place, because they were larger, firmer, had a distinctive shape, and stored well. That was more in keeping with what consumers wanted at the time. Taste, he laments, was not the deciding factor. For growers, however, there were additional “deciding factors” for the variety’s disappearance.
“My memory of the Fameuse variety was that neither my father nor my uncle could get rid of them fast enough!” Sherrington explained. “The returns were below cost, and their meager contribution hastened the day when my father returned to work in the city of Montreal (and so began the long slide into oblivion for that orchard).
“The apple trees, themselves, grew a lot of branches, and my father taught me to prune on Fameuse trees, because I ‘couldn’t do them any harm,’” he continued. “The apples were not very big, and unless you ate one fresh from the tree, the fruit had very little crunch. The flavor, however, was exceptional. I remember we had two types—solid red with green, and very striped red over green. The striped ones tasted sweeter, like biting into a can of fresh apple juice, with no added anything.
“Fameuse had to be sprayed constantly for scab,” Sherrington said, “and I recall they were every bit as susceptible to that disease as the McIntosh were.”
In addition to its affinity for apple scab, other diseases and disorders include Fameuse’s susceptibility to fireblight and collar rot. A sport of Fameuse, Winter Fameuse, claims the merits of its parent but with better keeping quality. It is just as susceptible to scab, however.
Still a part of the apple mix for several boutique East Coast cider makers, today the variety nevertheless is difficult to find. Tim Ward who grows 1,500 apple cultivars on Eastman’s Antique Apple ranch near Wheeler, Michigan, said of all of his varieties, the Snow Apple is the second-most requested (Honeycrisp is the most requested), but the buyers are generally 80 years of age or older. Ward says that he lets customers know when he’s going to harvest the Snow Apple, and they travel for hours to buy that cultivar on the day it’s picked.