A recent piece by James Norton over at HeavyTable on the “Noble Farce” of the modern apple orchard inspired me to comment here on our autumn ritual of visiting the folks at Barthel Fruit Farm in Mequon, WI. If you haven’t read the blog, articles, and books by Mr. Norton over at HeavyTable, you are missing out. Please go read them now. He proposes a 10-point scale for the modern apple orchard which try ever so nobly to generate a profit from a seasonal influx of city dwellers. His scale is for the level of “farce” involved: a full 10 is essentially an apple-themed amusement park and a 1 is just trees in a field. He opts for the farm with at least a corn maze and apple-cider doughnuts, something like a 7 on his scale. I can respect that, but for me and mine, I’ll take something a bit closer to a 2 or 3 on the scale. Rolling hills, rows of many different apple varietals, a pumpkin field, and fresh pressed cider in the lower level of the barn. I lean rustic.
Making the annual visit with the family obviously adds to my fondness for the excursion. Barthels allows cars to drive into the orchard on a gravel road to park close to the trees that are available for picking at the time. We timed our visit for the Honeycrisp apples, which pairs very nicely with an aged cheddar or perhaps with a creamy blue cheese in a salad with walnuts. We also picked a bushel of Cortland apples, which are great for applesauce and apple pie. The day was one of those “warm for fall” sort of days, when you are hot when the sun is beating down on you, but can get suddenly chilled in the shade with just a slight breeze. A fall day that reminds you the summer is coming to a close. The geese fly in formation south, calling loudly, bon voyage. We are left behind to hunker down, eat well, and prepare for the cold months ahead.
With our bounty of apples, we turned our efforts to a batch of applesauce – simply peeled and cored, cut into large dice and then simmered with a splash of apple cider. We add brown sugar and/or apple cider vinegar to balance the sweetness or the “tanginess” to the desired level and then add cinnamon and a bit of powdered clove, sometimes a bit of nutmeg, allspice, the standard autumn spices. A potato masher breaks the apples down to a nice texture, a hand blender would create something more like store-bought. I like a little texture – like I said, I lean rustic. I like it warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, light sprinkle of powdered clove. The whole experience – walking the fields, picking the apples, enjoying a cider or a caramel apple in the barn, peeling the apples with the kids, patiently waiting for the applesauce to break down to the perfect flavor and texture, and then enjoying it with the cool contrast of ice cream – the whole experience is part of our fall ritual. And it is part of what it means to live in the Great Lakes region – bountiful harvest, changing seasons, hunkering down, together.