Apples and fall fit together like two perfectly matched puzzle pieces. Just as the air acquires its seasonal snap, the apples are weighing down their branches, beckoning us to come pick them. And just as temperatures begin their slide, our kitchens are ready for slow cookers and warm ovens, for soups and pies, for the comforting flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg and ginger.
Where I’m sitting in Southwest Virginia, apples are particularly woven into the fabric of the everyday: apple butter is spotlighted on store shelves, hand-cranked cider presses make appearances at area farmers markets, apple festivals bring together craftspeople and farmers and tourists, and pick-your-own apple orchards dot the mountains and valleys in and around this corner of the state.
Even while many apples finding their way into our juices and sauces come from overseas, Virginia is still home to more than 100 commercial apple growers selling upwards of 5 million bushels of apples each year, making it the 6th largest apple producing state in the country, behind No. 1 Washington and No. 2 New York.
And when Diane Flynt, maker of the famed Foggy Ridge hard ciders, decided to plant an orchard of heirloom apples, she chose nearby Dugspur, Va., to dig in her roots.
But this fall, I took my love of apples to an even deeper level. As I researched a magazine story about Doe Creek Farm, a commercial orchard turned pick-your-own farm outside of Blacksburg, and as I prepared to teach a class about appreciating local apples at the Roanoke Co+op, I focused more than ever on learning the many varieties of apples available today and how best to eat and cook with them.
Just like there’s more to lettuce than iceberg and more to tomatoes than a fat, red slicer, apple varieties stretch so much farther than Red Delicious and Granny Smith. Doe Creek Farm alone boasts 22 varieties. Johnson’s Orchard in Bedford says they raise some 200 apple varieties! Names like Fuji, Gala, Jonathan, Winesap, Stayman and York. Some have long grown in these hills and some are varieties developed in places as far afield as Japan but that grow well in our climate.
Now that industrial farming is being challenged, now that consumers are demanding their produce be tasty in addition to pretty, now that buyers can access local ingredients, we have more food choices than ever and more apple varieties than ever. Many are cross bred, selected for sweetness and crispness, or for their sour notes or for their ability to stand firm even when cooked. They are valued for far more than how well they travel over great distances.
Because of this, I want to encourage you to take a weekend this fall and trek to whatever orchards might be nearby. Pick apples you’ve never heard of before, maybe the deep purple Royal Empire or the tiny, tart Liberty or the giant, super crisp Staymared. Take some time to learn which is which and how they taste — each one so different in flavor and texture and size. And then sample them in your cooking, mixing tart with sweet in your pie and your applesauce, selecting those that make you pucker to cook into your soup or to bake whole.
This is the privileged time we live in — where the world’s produce is at our doorstep and our local varieties are ripe for the picking. We should savor this cornucopia of apples. But first we have to notice that it’s there.
If you’re reading in the Roanoke area, here’s a directory of nearby pick-your-own orchards. Did I miss your favorite? Let me know and I’ll include it.
Once you’re home from picking and you need to know what to make with all those apples, here are my favorite apple recipes: Autumn’s Apple Cabbage Slaw, Quinoa and Brown Rice Baked Apples, Simple Slow Cooker Applesauce, Curried Parsnip and Apple Soup, Appetizing Apple Chips, Apple Oat Scones, Doe Creek Farm Apple Pie, and Sausage and Apple Stuffing Bites. Enjoy!