October 2, 2011

Apple Picking Time, the 2011 Edition

I picked my first apple when I was in my twenties and it was a revelation:  apples were delicious.  Until that time, I believed that apples came in two varieties: ‘tasteless’ (Red Delicious) and ‘tasteless and mushy’ (MacIntosh).  It was only when I plucked an apple from a tree, polished it on my shirt and bit into it with an audible ‘snap’ that I comprehended that apples could be tart or sweet or explode with flavor in my mouth.

From that day forward, I was hooked.  For the past thirty-plus years, picking apples in late September has been one of the joys of early autumn.

Honey Pot Hill is 200 acres of
apple orchards.  We walked a very
long way (white line) to get to them.
Yesterday, Betty and I ventured out for our first apple picking of the season.  For the past decade, we have traveled 45 miles north to Doe Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts (I last wrote about it in September 2009).  We did so because Doe has Macouns and, having tasted dozens of varieties of pyrus malus, I have come to believe that Macouns are the pinnacle of appledom. 

This year, though, we broke with tradition and went to Honey Pot Hill, an orchard in Stow, Massachusetts.  Honey Pot Hill is in its third generation of growing you-pick apples (the farm’s website says Honey Pot Hill was one of the first in the country to offer pick-your-own fruits). 

Betty picking Macouns
Our reason for switching allegiances was not because of any disappointment with Doe but, rather, that Betty had a member of the fourth generation of the Martin family as her summer intern this year.  Chelcie Martin was energetic, self-motivating and hard-working; and we figured that if her family’s apples were as good as she was, it was worth investigating.

We had no idea of what we were getting into and, before I go further, let me emphasize that we came home with a peck (about thirty pounds) of the best Macouns we’ve ever tasted.  But Doe Orchards has 25 acres in apples.  Honey Pot Hill covers 200 acres (see map).  From the farm store, you drive a quarter mile to the entrance for ‘U-pick’ parking (with overhead banners to let you know you are on the right track.  The parking field alone is perhaps ten acres. 

We bought our peck-sized bag ($23) and set off for the Macouns.  We passed acres of trees bearing MacIntosh, Cortland, Empire, Ginger Gold, Spartan, Spencer, Royal Gala and Mutsu; finally encountering a directional sign indicating MACOUNS!  300 YARDS!  Many, many twists later, we found the trees – sturdy, mature trees with gorgeous fruit.  The Martin family also graciously provided dozens of ladders allowing pickers to get to the tops of trees.  We took full advantage, heaping up our bag with the largest Macouns we have ever encountered (and, yes, sampling one just for, ummm, quality control purposes).

Which one is the replica?
The orchards swarmed with people.  At Doe Orchards, we usually found perhaps two dozen cars in the modest lot and, as we picked, there was seldom more than one family nearby.  At Honey Pot Orchards, the trees buzzed with the sounds of humanity.

But that was nothing compared with the hive of activity back at the farm store.  Honey Pot Orchards has perfected the art of apple picking as all-day family entertainment.  There are dollar hay rides, a petting zoo, and a hedge maze that is an exact replica of the one at Hampton Court  (perhaps the Royal Palaces website should indicate that it is an exact replica of the one at Honey Pot Orchards).  A quick crowd estimate put the size of the contingent at the farm store and surrounding attractions at over a hundred.

Last evening, in what may be an apple’s finest incarnation, the first of our fresh-picked apples became the star of Molly O’Neill’s Apple Walnut Upside-Down Cake, which can be found in ‘A Well Seasoned Appetite’. Ms. O’Neill (who is Paul O’Neill’s baby sister in addition to other accomplishments) specifies Macoun apples in her recipe. Who can go against the instructions of the sister of a Yankee legend?

Honey Pot Orchards is 22 miles
from Boston's financial district
As I enjoyed my cake, though, I thought about Honey Pot Hill.  It sits 22 miles from Boston's financial district in an urban area of 5 million people.  Can it survive as a family farm to serve future generations of apple pickers?  I sincerely hope so.  Yes, it is part circus but the petting zoo and such are part of a marketing strategy and, on a gray day, many hundreds of people came to sample a bit of rural life.  We do what we need to do to survive.  The alternative - 200 acres of 'estate homes on the picturesque Sudbury River' - would mean a lost treasure for those future generations.

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