McIntosh is by far the best variety of apple that is widely available. The flavor is tart, almost as sour as a Granny Smith (which would be, perhaps, a less ironic choice for a Scottish moniker), but unlike a Granny Smith the flesh is the tenderest of any variety, and the skin is the thinnest. McIntoshes are juicy: when you bite into one the skin tenses and gives way with a satisfying pop of flavor. They are round but somewhat oblate, with only a shallow impression at the calyx end.
The color is patchy, freckled light-green and red, a natural appearance that brings to mind songbirds or traditional Raku pottery. As the poet-monk Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
They are in every way the opposite of that most pernicious and ubiquitous breed of apple, the Delicious; whose uniform color, hard or woody texture, thick skin, and flavorlessness are the antithesis of every quality that makes an apple good to eat. In their sourness, irregular coloration, small size, and susceptibility to bruising, McIntoshes are closer to the wild apple than the artificiality of many other breeds.
The very delicacy of the McIntosh makes them difficult to store. The process of bringing them home from the store in a bag is often enough to bruise them. For that reason, you rarely can find good McIntosh in stores out of season (late September). In its peculiar way, this very rarity enhances their appeal; like eggnog, it is a seasonal treat one looks forward to and then longs for, and is all the sweeter for it.
However, the reason I am writing this is that I frequently find that what is marketed as McIntosh is no true Scotsman, as it were. Frequently they tend toward more yellow coloring, a sweeter flavor and a firm texture more reminiscent of a Jonathan or Gala.
I recognize that categories are defined by their members, and not a single ideal (as Plato would have it) of which the members are imperfect copies. Surely the people selling these apples are more expert in the lineage and cultivation of apples than I am, and can say with more authority to which variety their apples belong. On the other hand, there must be strong financial pressures to sell as the authentic McIntosh hardier forgeries. So which is it, dear reader? Am I mistaken in taking a preferred subvariety as defining the variety as a whole, or have I fallen victim to some dark conspiracy of greed and deceit among apple growers? Is the industry, I must ask, rotten to the core?