In our continuing Canada's Tastemakers series, we profile people who are making an impact on Canada's food scene, from authors to producers to chefs and more. But sometimes a tastemaker isn't a person but a food that's the embodiment of a place or uniquely Canadian - like Tidal Bay Wine or the Ambrosia Apple. Tiffany Mayer learns more about the very happy accident that was the Ambrosia Apple and chats with Peter Katona of Martin's Family Fruit Farm about the love Canada and apple growers around the world have for this uniquely Canadian apple variety.
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Its name means ‘food of the gods.’
There’s no doubt the Ambrosia apple has been a blessing to those hungry for what may be the perfect fruit.
Among them is the Martin family of Martin’s Family Fruit Farm. The seventh generation farmers from Waterloo region love the Ambrosia apple so much, they grow more than anyone else in Ontario — a whopping 40 per cent of the province’s crop.
“They feel it’s the best apple they’ve ever seen,” said Peter Katona, Martin’s director of sales and marketing.
It’s serendipity, however, that the Martin's — and anyone else — ever sunk their teeth into an Ambrosia apple.
The BC Roots of the Ambrosia Apple
Where do Ambrosia apples come from?
Well, believe it or not, the Ambrosia was a fortunate accident that happened on Sally and Wilfrid Mennell’s apple farm in British Columbia’s Similkameen Valley in the 1980s.
Unlike most modern-day apple varieties, Ambrosia wasn’t bred by scientists or farmers crossing one apple variety with another to deliberately create something new. It’s believed Ambrosia is the work of the birds and the bees — or some other pollinator — bringing spores from the blossom from one apple tree to another.
Somehow, seeds from the new fruit that developed fell to the ground, germinated and grew into the original Ambrosia seedling discovered in 1987.
Lady Luck intervened a few more times in the process, including when Wilfrid Mennell missed cutting down the chance seedling sprouting amongst his rows of Jonagold apples. That Ambrosia-to-be was left to grow, weathering the elements and producing fruit a few years later.
The tree became a favourite amongst pickers in the orchard once it bore fruit. They were initially drawn to the apple’s attractive pink-blush skin and distinct golden cheek, but they came back for more after biting into it and tasting how luscious it was.
The Flavour of An Ambrosia Apple - Food of the Gods?
After sampling it himself, Wilfrid Mennell gave the apple a name that matched its legendary origins: Ambrosia after the food of the gods in ancient Greek myths.
The tasting notes for Ambrosia read like poetry — delicately perfumed flavour, delight to all senses, super sweet, a 10/10 on the Martin’s apple sweetness scale. Katona has his own adjectives to add to the list, including refined, very crisp, and medium to above average juiciness.
“It’s a perfectly balanced apple. It’s firm, it’s crisp,” he said. “The Ambrosia is probably the most refined dessert apple we grow. It’s kind of like a Gala but amplified.”
Is It A Baking Apple or An Eating Apple?
The Ambrosia is remarkable in that it crosses boundaries. Is it an eating apple? Absolutely. An Ambrosia apple shines best when eaten fresh to give you a full appreciation of its sweet flavour and crisp crunch. Can you use Ambrosia apples for baking? Yes you can - it will be just fine in a pie or crumble.
Better still, the Ambrosia has low acidity, which means it doesn’t brown quickly after being cut. That makes it ideal for slicing at home in the morning to eat at school or work for lunch.
Ambrosia also stores well in the fridge, staying crisp and packing impressive crunch long after harvest. It’s a plum topping on salads when thinly sliced and tossed with leafy greens, Katona noted. And it’s just as ideal eaten out of hand or used for juicing.
“This isn’t your grandpa’s apple,” he said, noting the Ambrosia stands up to — and outshines — the thin-skinned, tender McIntosh, and other tart varieties that have been stalwarts on store shelves for decades. “This is the true apple for the apple connoisseur.”
Canadian Apple Growers Are Embracing the Ambrosia As Their Own
That declaration is why the Martin family, one of Ontario's oldest apple growing families, decided to grow it on such a large scale. They started small, though, planting a few trees and doing taste tests at local markets. It wasn’t long before they knew Ambrosia had the potential to be the apple of consumers’ eyes.
“It was intriguing to see how many people liked it,” Katona said. “It gave the Martin's confidence to plant more of what they believed would be a widely accepted apple.”
Today, Ambrosia apples are easy to find across Canada with farmers growing them in BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia. You can even find them growing in Europe, Chile, New Zealand and Australia. Martin’s Ambrosia apples are a popular choice in Ontario, sold at Costco under the Martin’s Ambrosia label and in Loblaw stores as PC Ambrosia.
It’s become “the darling of apples,” Katona explained.
“The fact that grocery stores made it a mainstay in their apple line-up shows it’s in high demand,” he said. “We certainly like to brag about this apple. When an old apple-growing family like the Martin's get behind an apple, that’s usually a good sign it’s a really good piece of fruit.”
And Canadian apple fans, especially those who've already tried Ambrosia apples, are all the luckier for it.
- Chickpea Ambrosia Apple Salad
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Tiffany Mayer is a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at Time For Grub. You can also listen to her food podcast, Grub and read more of her work here on FBC.