October 26, 2013 10:43:30 PM
A little more than a week ago my brother Stephen and I stood on a hilltop in central New York eating apples. We were lost in a maze of apple trees -- and, frankly, astonished; each tree was laden with more fruit than seemed possible. Endless rows of them, each with their own little street sign: Honeycrisp, Macintosh, Macoun, Empire, Northern Spy and so on.
A dozen or so large bins filled with fresh-picked apples in front of a roadside market, a place called Burrell's Navarino Orchard, had been too much to resist.
This 20-mile stretch of U.S. 20 between LaFayette and Skaneateles (more lyrically known locally as the Cherry Valley Turnpike), is littered with apple orchards -- some are elaborate, theme parks for tourists and parents with kids -- others, like this one, are more basic. The only concession I can see this place makes to tourists is a wooden cut-out of three people with pumpkin heads. The cutout stands behind a stack of pumpkins. An oval has been cut out where the heads would be. Dava takes a picture of Beth, Stephen and me as pumpkin heads with Beth's smart phone.
This time of year the trees in this part of the country are either flaming with orange, yellow and red leaves or bowed by the weight of apples, large, red and perfect. Bite into one of them and the sensation that follows is difficult to describe. In the same way a spoonful of just-extracted honey is like putting a bouquet of flowers in your mouth or a farmers' market tomato in July is the taste of summer, a bite into one of these fresh-picked apples is, well, like eating fall: crisp, tart and sweet, all at once.
The apples here are $1.20 a pound from the bins, $.90 if you pick them. Our favorites are Fortune and Crispin, a tart, green apple. The Fortunes are a new variety, the cashier tells us. They are as big as the largest fist you can imagine and have a lemony tartness that for my taste is perfect. Grocery store apples bear little resemblance to this fruit.
According to Internet sources a grocery store apple may be a year old or more. It will have overwintered in a cold warehouse and may have been sprayed with a chemical called 1-methylcyclopropene and then waxed. While these treatments are not supposed to be harmful, the nutritional value diminishes over time.
The girl at the counter says the you-pickers will strip the trees of Honeycrisp; the leavings from the other trees will end up in sauce and cider. The spoils, "the drops," as she calls the, go to area stables.
Later, Beth and I will return and pick three bags of our favorites, 53 pounds worth. Seems like a lot at the time, but when we get home we'll wish we'd picked twice as many.
Burrell's grows about a dozen varieties of apples along with pumpkins and plums. Later, at the Ithaca (N.Y.) Farmer's Market, vendors offer even more choices, exotics like Reine des Reinettes (queen pippin), Cox's Pippin and the apple said to be one of two of Thomas Jefferson's favorites, the Esopus Spitzenburg (the Albemarle Pippin being the other).
According to the Monticello Website, there were 17,000 apple varieties mentioned in 19th-century publications.
"The apple is an apt symbol for the diversity of American's melting pot culture," writes Peter Hatch, director of Monticello's gardens. "The apple is to America as the potato is to Ireland as the olive is to Italy."
Back home I share the apples with co-workers and friends. Enough of them tell me it was the best apple they had ever tasted to let me know their enthusiasm is not mere flattery.
Friday afternoon as I write this I take a bite of one that's been sitting on my desk all week patiently waiting its turn. The apple is still flavorful and has good texture, but that snap, that burst of freshness, the sensation that stops you in your tracks, is gone.
Meanwhile here in Mississippi fall is just getting underway. Perhaps Friday night's cold snap will shock the maples, ginkgoes and roadside sumac into their autumn colors. In the South, winter takes its sweet time getting here. Fewer apples, but more fall. Maybe that's a fair trade-off, after all.
Birney Imes III is Publisher of The Dispatch.
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