Ask a New Englander where they are headed on a nice weekend in September and October and their answer will probably be “apple picking”. The air is crisp, the sky is blue, leaves are turning golden and orchards welcome families to pick their apples, purchase apple cider doughnuts and a jug of cider.
Autumn is the season for apple picking in New England. On a nice weekend, families love spending a day driving the winding back roads enjoying the beautiful fall scenery as well as stopping at one of the many orchards to pick a peck or perhaps even a bushel of their favorite apples.
As a former New Hampshire apple grower, I can assure you that eating a ripe apple just picked off a tree is a memorable experience that everyone should try if you live in or visit an apple growing region. Most orchards will have a dozen or so well known varieties but antique varieties are rarely found except at specialty orchards. Our orchard, Orchard Hill Farm, was one of the exceptions as its eight acres were originally planted with almost a hundred different varieties of heritage apples, sometimes called antique or heirloom varieties, many known for being perfect for making cider. Not only did we grow apples, we also had pears, peaches, plums, cherries, and even a quince.
Everyone has probably tasted a Golden Delicious or Granny Smith apple but what about Esopus Spitzenbergs, one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite varieties of apples. New England orchards may sometimes sell apples with names you have never heard of or flavors you have never tasted before such as Ashmead’s Kernel or Cox’s Orange Pippin, a rather gnarly looking English apple that people love after having their first crisp, sweet bite. The heirloom apples usually cost a little more but they are definitely worth seeking out. I used to always add one of our heirloom varieties that a customer had never tried to the bag of apples they were buying. Once they tried it, they would be back for more.
When apple season came around and people wanted to head out into our orchard to pick their own apples, I would always ask what they were going to use the apples for then show them the trees where they should pick. If they wanted tart apples that would hold their shape for buttery, rich desserts such as pies and tarts, I would suggest Arkansas Black, Bramley, Granny Smith, Newtown Pippen, Northern Spy, Rome, Roxbury Russet, Stayman Winesap, Calville Blanc, Rhode Island Gteening or Esopus Spitzenberg.
If they wanted a firm yet slightly sweeter apple for cakes or baked apples, I would suggest Ginger Gold, Golden Delicious, Baldwin, Jonagold or my personal favorite apple in our orchard, a large Japanese apple called Mutsu.
If my visitors were planning on canning several jars of apple sauce, I would suggest a tart tender apple that would not only be good for eating out of hand but would break down quickly during cooking and be good for sauces, pancakes and muffins such as Cox’s Orange Pippin, Empire, Fuju, Jonathan, Gravenstein or New England favorites such as Cortland, McIntosh or Macoun.
For eating out of hand or using in a salad, Cortland, Empire, Fuji, Gala, Ginger Gold, Golden Delicious and Stayman Winesap were good choices as they didn’t turn brown as quickly when sliced.
People love a day out picking apples because it’s something the whole family, from grandparents to young children, can do together. They get to spend time outside on a pretty fall day as they walk through the orchard picking their favorite apples straight from the tree. Many times, New Englanders have a favorite orchard they return to year after year because some orchards not only have PYO (pick your own) apples but attractions such as hay rides and petting zoos that are especially fun for young children.
Besides letting you pick your own apples, lots of orchards sell already picked apples as well as cider donuts, pies, jams and jellies, vegetables and flowers if they have gardens, and small gifts. After a wonderful day of outdoor fun in an orchard, families return home with a car full of goodies to enjoy. Soon their kitchens are filled with sweet aromas from making apple sauce, baking pies and there is usually be a bowl of apples sitting on the kitchen table for snacking.
I grew up on a ranch in Texas and didn’t know a thing about growing apples. After buying and renovating an historic 1730’s home in New Hampshire I soon became an orchardist as our beautiful home came along with an orchard filled with heirloom fruit trees. Up until then, I bought red, green and yellow apples from a grocery store. I soon learned apples come in a range of colors from yellow, orange, brown, dark burgundy and dark purple, almost black. They all have different textures, some are sweeter or juicier than others and some of those that are grown strictly for cider were so acidic that you want to spit them out. While many varieties looked perfect in size and shape others are naturally lumpy or odd shaped. Some of our ugly looking apples were actually some of our best but it took a little convincing to get customers to try them.
If you get the opportunity to visit an apple orchard during harvest season, you will get enormous pleasure from eating a just picked ripe apple off the branch of a tree…especially an unusual looking heirloom apple that you have never heard of before. While maybe not the prettiest apple, they will make up for that in their amazing taste.