After my climb up Black Mountain, I went apple picking. I had noticed the place on my way to the trailhead and was tempted. Then the woman I talked to at the peak told me her family works there. When I was younger and the children more pliable, Al and I used to take them picking quite frequently. It got us out on a Sunday afternoon and was a low-stress social option for adults and families alike. Also, in the end there would be apples. Who can complain about that?
I grew up working for my grandfather on school vacations and during the summer. He had apple trees. That said, the apples--like the extensive garden next to it--were for family use. The big sale items on the farm were Christmas trees, actually. Also, he contracted out to raise heifers for Heifer International. He cut hay for himself and other local farmers. He grew corn and other crops primarily for the heifers. Once he boarded someone else's sheep for a while.
The apple trees were the personal passion of a guy with plenty of passions. They would be pruned and the pests abated in the off-season. Then we would harvest them throughout the fall and put them in barrels on the porch, pulling them out when we felt like it. I remember sitting on that porch the day before Thanksgiving munching apples while waiting for my cousins to arrive. I did this more than once.
At home we had apples, too. There was a big, old apple tree whose variety is best described as "green and wormy" along with a couple crabapple trees. My mom--not to be outdone by her father--built a cider press in our yard. We would spend days grinding apples and squeezing them, producing gallons and gallons of unfiltered, unpasteurized apple-and-bug juice that we would start drinking immediately. Jugs of the stuff would go down in the basement for safekeeping. Then it would slowly ferment through the winter. We usually ran out in early March.
As an adult, of course, the whole process has been a bit more commercialized. It is safe to say that the cost per bushel and peck is substantially over the free-with-labor rate of my youth. It took me a while to get used to that. There is something strange about paying to work instead of the other way around.
I have learned, of course, that this is how the local orchards survive; preserving an endangered economy along with varieties that would be hard to find otherwise. That there are more than Macintosh, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, and Cortland apples in the grocery store is a direct result of these orchards maintaining their many trees in all their variety.
This is part of the fun, of course. One place we used to go to when we were younger parents had a tree that was older than the memory of the family that ran it. Every other year those apples are the best ever. On the off year they taste like rotting grass.
Nothing compares to an apple so I don't know how to describe the flavor. They taste like fall, family, and farm work to me. I am going to pretentiously say they taste like America, or, rather, its best parts. That said, there are sweeter ones and less sweet. Some outliers have their own thing going on that can be pleasant or really not pleasant depending on the environment they are raised in. The taste also depends on the mood of the eater. Even the varieties themselves vary by tree.
Let's talk variety for a minute. When I was growing up it was either the green wormy variety or Macs at home. Mom still insists on Macs to this day. My grandfather's fruit were varieties of Golden Delicious although some of the trees were more delicious than others. Maybe because of how may of these particular apples I ate when I was a kid, I tend not to get them now. Also, I am not fond of off-season varieties. They are mealy and taste a bit manufactured.
It turns out only two members of my immediate family can be counted on to consume apples in any quantity. One is me. The other one is still living in a tent somewhere in the Appalachian Range. This means the demand these days is low. Usually, therefore, I forego the whole event of picking and just buy a half-peck of local apples that are in season. In fact, that was my plan when I arrived at this particular apple place. There was a school bus full of small children. There were family groups with their seniors. It appeared I was the only one flying solo and the smallest bag for picking is the $14 peck. What a frivolous pursuit for a serious middle aged man! At least that was my initial impression and fear. Then someone in front of me--probably a decade or so younger with a couple bags if donuts--bought an empty peck bag for himself, too. That was all the peer pressure I needed.
In the end I had a good time. It wasn't the full-on picking experience of some of those places closer to home. There thankfully wasn't a petting zoo or a pony ride. They sold cider donuts in theory...but that guy in front of me bought the last. There were also a few corny hand painted signs but they kept themselves to defining the boundaries of various varieties and warning people not to bring their dogs. The environment was pretty no-nonsense for an operation like this, which was just what I was looking for.
I took my bag and spent about 20 minutes filling it with Macouns and Paula Reds while munching on a Cortland held in my other hand. One of the painted signs said I could eat on the job; "Sample, Don't Feast!" After the Cortland I had a Paula Red. It is early in the season in New Hampshire--and the bigger apples go in bags for the orchard store anyway--so the apples in the field are small and tart. You can't find them at the supermarket like this, where the ideal of the big, puffy, red or green, unblemished apple reigns supreme. Maybe I will make a pie, but really these should be eaten straight up, on the porch.
It wasn't like when I was a kid. I didn't prune these trees, or mow between them, or fight the battle of the bugs. I did not feel like a farmer. However, I got my hands a bit dirty to get the freshest new apples I could and that is enough for now.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.