Buckeye Gala apples are known as good "eating" apples, according to Shirley Lewis of Lewis Orchard and Farm Market. Some cooks like to use them in recipes, too. Shirley has one customer who buys Galas to make applesauce for her diabetic husband. The apples are so sweet that no additional sugar needs to be added.
As the days grow cooler and evenings fall earlier, the senses are filled with the sights, sounds and tastes of autumn. What a delight to live in a region where orchards dot the landscape and an escape is merely a short countryside drive away. Rarely does a trip to a roadside stand or market leave the traveler without a feeling of fulfillment, whether it be from a touch of nostalgia for times gone by or an armful of goodies from the most recent season's harvest.
When it comes to apple-related adventures in the Tri-State area, there truly is something for everyone – from the person looking for a daylong recreational getaway at a farm to the one who simply seeks some local fresh fruit to serve with dinner.
Visits to area farms and orchards can be enjoyable and educational, says Karen Martin, who owns Ivy Hill Farm in Smithsburg with her husband, John Steven "Steve" Martin. "Each generation gets away from the farm," Karen says. "We are a working farm. We are teaching what it takes. It starts with a seed. When you come here, we want you to enjoy and be a part of it." The Martins welcome visitors for educational programs at their farm.
Apples, apples, what a treat,
sweet and tart and good to eat.
Apples green and apples red,
hang from branches overhead,
and when they ripen, down they drop,
so we can taste our apple crop.
– from "Apples" by Helen H. Moore
Distillery Lane Ciderworks in Jefferson, Md., also offers educational tours, which cover apple-growing and cidermaking basics, says Rob Miller, who owns the business with his wife, Patty Power. Tours last 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the number of questions asked by participants. After tours, participants have the opportunity to taste the ciders that are produced at the orchard.
A cider apple is quite different from an "eating" apple, Rob says, noting that some cider apples are called "spitters" for a reason. He cautions that tour participants won't want more than a bite or two of the cider apples. "You could not eat a whole apple, but it would be fun to try a slice," Rob says.
The opportunity to experience new tastes and sights is a good reason to visit area farms, orchards and locally owned markets. The apple selections available are as varied as the tastes that seek them. Sometimes buyers simply need to try something different. "There are a lot of new varieties that are very nice," says Bill Gardenhour, whose family owns Gardenhour Orchards Inc. in Smithsburg. "Don't be afraid to try the new varieties. Honeycrisp is kind of taking the market by storm," Bill says, but Crimson Crisp is gaining popularity, as well. He describes the Crimson Crisp as "a little more tart and smaller than Honeycrisp," noting that most apples are smaller than the Honeycrisp. "Everybody has a different idea of what they like. They usually know what they want before they get here."
Adrienne Eckstine pours some apple "slush" at Ivy Hill Farm in Smithsburg.
Fuji is the most highly favored variety of apple sold at Lewis Orchard and Farm Market, on Mapleville Road (Md. 66) in Cavetown/Smithsburg. "Thirty years ago, Red Delicious was the king of the apple," Shirley Lewis says. "Fuji has now taken over. Fuji is the big one, the most popular one." Fuji, Gala and Honeycrisp are all good eating apples, Shirley says.
There really is some truth to the adage, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." A medium-sized apple has no fat and only about 80 calories, says Chris Forsythe, who together with her husband, Michael Forsythe, owns Linden Hall Farm and market on Downsville Pike, south of Hagerstown. "There are a lot of nutrients in the skin, too, so it is important that you eat the skin."
Golden Delicious is still the most popular variety sold at Linden Hall Farm, Chris notes. "You can do almost anything with them – baking, eating, salads. They're good for anything," she says of the Golden Delicious variety.
"You never go wrong with a Golden Delicious," Shirley also advises, explaining that some bakers prefer Stayman Winesap apples. Golden Delicious has a sweet taste, whereas Stayman tends to be tart, Shirley notes, adding that she mixes things up a bit. "I bake with all apples," she says. One year, she won first prize in a bakeoff held in Baltimore. It was 9 o'clock the night before the contest when her husband asked if she was going to enter. She decided to enter, even though all she had in her fridge were a few Rome and a few Golden Delicious apples. She retells the story of the winning recipe secret with a laugh: It was created with half Rome and half Golden Delicious apples.
Pies are a specialty in her family, and while Shirley admits, "I have a Pillsbury crust in my fridge at all times to use in a pinch," she prefers the Homemakers' pie crust recipe her sister gave her years ago. The recipe is probably from the 1970s and is tried-and-true.
Chris likes to make apple dumplings from a recipe handed down by her great-grandmother, Blanche Byers. She says she would share a photo of the dumplings, but doesn't think she's ever had a chance to capture a shot. "They don't last long."
For those who like to make homemade applesauce, Shirley recommends using Gala apples, which are so sweet that home cooks might find that no additional sugar needs to be added.
When it comes to picking an apple, there is more than the eye can see. In fact, there is quite a bit of science involved in the process. The first test deals with pressure. How much pressure is in an apple and how will that contribute to the crunchiness of the first bite and beyond? The second test involves sugar, which reveals the potential sweetness or tartness of the apple. Apple growers use pressure testers to measure pressure and refractometers to measure sweetness. Most consumers are completely unaware of the process, but when it is done effectively, the selections are appreciated and enjoyed.
"Most people think you just look at an apple and pick it," Shirley says, while patiently explaining the steps to prove that much care is involved. Growers have these tools and have already done the preliminary selection work for their customers.
Yet there are some things that buyers should keep in mind. Look for an apple that's firm, free of blemishes and has good color, Chris recommends. Locally grown produce will be fresher, Bill says, and there are some things buyers can do to keep the fruit fresh when they get it home. Temperature is the key to keeping apples fresh, Shirley says. "If you want a crunchy apple, you need to keep them refrigerated." In a producer's cold storage, apples are kept at 32 to 36 degrees. Producers are careful to not allow the temperature to drop below 32 so the apples don't freeze. At home, apples will stay fresh for about 10 days to two weeks in a refrigerator set at about 40 degrees.
At Distillery Lane Ciderworks, the Millers have been selling apples and making cider for 10 years. When they planted their first apple trees in 2001, little did they know what would develop. Today, they sell 45 varieties of apples produced on their nine-acre orchard.
They currently grow three categories of apples. They grow apples that are specifically used for cider production, specialty apples for eating, and specialty baking or culinary apples. Their customers are primarily restaurants and stores in Maryland and Washington, D.C. Hard cider is sold year-round. Fresh, or nonalcoholic, cider is available from mid-August to New Years. Apples are sold from mid-August through Thanksgiving.
The apples they produce are ones not available in most local markets or grocery stores. They have selected eating varieties that were developed by agricultural schools and are particularly disease-resistant. Some of these are Gold Rush, Liberty, Zestar and Snowsweet. Their culinary apples, such as the Red Gravenstein, Caville Blanc and Bramley's Seedling, are popular with local bakers, Rob says.
Bramley's is the size of a softball, which equates to less peeling and slicing for the same amount of product. The Caville Blanc is a French pastry apple, and is also popular with bakers.
Rob is particularly pleased to offer Roxbury Russet apples. One of the oldest native apple varieties in the United States, the Roxbury Russet was named after the former Town of Roxbury, which was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Tidbits like these are shared during walking tours of the orchard.