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Climbing apple trees with the man called Gnarly Pippins

How a teenage bootlegger became a wild apple guru

Apple forager and cider maker Matt Kaminsky at an apple orchard in Hadley. Kaminsky goes by the name Gnarly Pippins.
Apple forager and cider maker Matt Kaminsky at an apple orchard in Hadley. Kaminsky goes by the name Gnarly Pippins.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

It has recently come to my attention that you can in fact eat crab apples, and not just throw them at your friends. Also, it turns out that crab apples are not infested with crabs. That was simply a terrible rumor, possibly created by me, to explain why no one ever seemed to eat them.

These are just a few of the things I learned from a man who goes by Gnarly Pippins. That’s not technically his name — it’s Matt Kaminsky — but it has also recently come to my attention that I’ve always wanted a friend named Gnarly Pippins, so we’re going with it.

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Gnarly Pippins knows a lot about apples. He’s published two books on the subject, despite the fact that he’s only 26. But he began his apple scholarship early in life, when he was just a teenager, and for the purest of juvenile motivations: He wanted to get drunk.

“I can’t say I had a fervent love of apples until I found out you could make booze with your friends in the closet using the cider press in the neighbor’s barn,” he confessed on a recent day as I followed him through an overgrown field next to a dirt road, somewhere in the foothills of the Berkshires, searching for a wild apple tree. “It turns out hard cider is great even if you’re really bad at making it.”

He has since become very good at making it and makes a living cultivating cider apples on a picturesque hillside at Preservation Orchard in Hadley, to be pressed and sold at Carr’s Ciderhouse nearby.

But that’s not why I had trekked to Western Massachusetts. No, I had come to learn about wild apples, which are Gnarly Pippins’s true passion. He is the author of “The Wild Apple Foragers’ Guide,” now in its second edition, and I was hoping he could help me appreciate something about wild apples that I have never fully believed.

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Matt Kaminsky displayed apples found in the orchard.
Matt Kaminsky displayed apples found in the orchard.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

Not only can you eat a wild apple, but every single tree grown from an apple seed is completely unique. Each apple is unlike any before or since. Most of the familiar orchard varieties you see at the market are grown from a cutting of a parent tree, grafted to be roughly identical. Most of them started life as a wild apple that someone ate and said, essentially, “This is good, we should give it a name and make copies.”

But if you planted a seed from, say, a golden delicious, it would not grow a golden delicious tree. It would create a brand new variety of apple, every time. The only guarantee is randomness, and the only way to find out what it tastes like is to take a bite. Pippins is the name for an apple grown from seed.

Gnarly Pippins grew from a teenage bootlegger in Ashford, Conn., to a student at Hampshire College who dabbled in the campus orchard and played drums in punk bands. But it was the bite of an apple plucked from a tree in the southern White Mountains five years ago that set him on his wild path.

“It was a flavor experience unlike anything I’d had before,” he said. The eating apples we see at a market, known as culinary apples, are traditionally divided into two categories: sweet and tart. Wild apples are more eccentric and require four: sharp, bitter sharp, sweet, and bittersweet. Gnarly Pippins has been chasing those eccentric flavors ever since, wherever he can find them.

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Which is why we were traipsing through some painfully thick thorns, pushing toward an apple tree he’s had his eye on for a few months. When we finally reached the tree, Pippins quickly climbed about 15 feet, to a thick branch loaded with apples.

“This is my favorite sound in the world,” he said, and began shaking the tree, orchestrating a percussion of thumps on the ground below. He climbed back down, picked two off the ground, and handed me a pippin that was indeed gnarly-looking and could have been hiding anything inside. Possibly a crab.

“Bittersweet,” Pippins said as he chewed. “Lots of acid. Lots of tannin.”

He chewed a bit more. “I’d call it a spitter,” which is a self-explanatory wild apple term. Then he did just that, quickly followed by me.

But you never know how they’ll taste as a hard cider, so Pippins gathered up a bushel and a half and loaded them into the back of his pickup, next to a couple scythes he uses when he needs to bushwhack his way to a tree. They’ll go into his Wild Cider Blend sold at Carr’s. If he particularly likes a find, he might return later to take a cutting and try to grow it back in the orchard, as he is doing now with an apple he discovered in Danbury, Vt., he calls a deerskin russet.

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On this day, we were foraging in the town of Cummington, about 40 minutes northwest of where he lives in Hadley. He had scouted the area during that window where apple trees announce their presence in the early spring, blossoming earlier than nearly everything else with flowers that are brilliant white or pink or purple. He doesn’t pay much attention to who owns the land and says that in all his foraging, anyone who has questioned what he was doing thought his answer was great.

We headed to another spot he’d scouted, through another overgrown field, where we found several apple trees growing in a cluster. He climbed the first and shook free some apples that were so surprisingly good that neither of us said anything until we’d swallowed. “This is the best wild apple I’ve found this year, and probably the best one I’m going to find this year,” he said as he took a second bite.

Kaminsky picked apples in Hadley.
Kaminsky picked apples in Hadley.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

It was definitely interesting. But was it worthy of joining the 40,000 or so other chanced-upon seedlings throughout history that someone decided were good enough to be given a name and then propagated? Not really. But the next one could be.

“If people dig what I do,” Pippins said when I asked him what people should do if they dig what he does, “I want to inspire them to get to know the wild apple trees in their area and establish a relationship with them.” Eat 'em. Blend 'em. Turn them into cider. Or just simply notice that they’re there, wild food growing all around us. “Wild apples are hidden, not lost.”

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Our final stop was near the tiny stone library in Cummington, where he scaled a tree and created a rainfall of tiny red apples, the first of the day that could accurately be called crab apples.

“That’s just the name for an apple that is less than 2 inches,” Gnarly Pippins informed me. Which was disappointing until I picked one up and held it in my hand and realized I had been right all along. They were perfect for throwing at your friends.


Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.