What’s the best apple?
“It’s the one you’ve just picked,” says Dave Fraleigh, the sixth generation Fraleigh to grow apples at Rose Hill Farm in Red Hook. No, not that Red Hook—we’re in a town up in Dutchess County where there have been heated discussions about whether macouns or jonalicious make better pies.
Rose Hill, founded in 1798, is one of the many orchards in the Hudson Valley where visitors can pick ripe fruit off the trees and enjoy a bucolic rural experience less than two hours from downtown Brooklyn.
Even the most carefully harvested, stored, and handled fruit cannot compare with one plucked from the branch at its peak of ripeness. Although local orchards are able to store apples for year-round sales, apple harvest is right now, and the orchards of Ulster and Columbia counties are heavy with them.
The harvest began at the end of August with the colorful, juicy, crisp Sansa, a cross between a Japanese Akane and New Zealand Gala, and will go through early November with the hearty Braeburn (great for applesauce) and the good-for- long-keeping, crunchy Cameo.
New York is a major apple-growing state, second only to Washington in domestic apple
production, with Hudson Valley orchards producing about eight million bushels of fruit annually. The New York apple crop had its start on what is now the corner of Manhattan’s Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street when the New Netherlands Governor Peter Stuyvesant planted an apple tree. Settlers moving north into the Hudson Valley planted trees which bore fruit prized more to taste great and keep well than cosmetic perfection. The apples bore names that reflected their region and appearance, like Black Gilliflower, a dessert apple that when fully ripe is nearly black, and the Roxbury (or Golden) Russet, a late and hardy golden fruit with dark brown spots that keeps well through the winter.
Like people, apples reproduce sexually, so if you plant a seed you’ll get a brand new individual that may or may not bear many physical characteristics of its parents. Most trees grown from seed (“pippins”) are unpalatable, which is why modern orchards instead plant cuttings. Every named apple is grown from cuttings that can be traced back to a single pippin that hit the taste jackpot. At least five hundred varieties of apples that were beloved a century ago were pippins first grown in New York State, although average Americans sample only six varieties during their lifetimes. It’s doubtful that any of them could find a place on today’s supermarket shelves where appearance is all that matters. “We can’t sell apples unless they are perfectly round and red,” says Russ Bartolotta whose family picks more than 130,000 bushels of apples a year, most of which are sold “wholesale” (to middlemen for resale).
The domestic apple industry is under siege. A global overproduction of apples, with imports of cheap apple-juice concentrate from China, has depressed the juice market so much that many growers let their fruit rot on the ground. Lucky for you, small farms near New York City have responded by instead selling their crop direct to the public. There are two apple belts in the Hudson Valley: southern Ulster County on the west side of the river and northern Dutchess and Columbia Counties on the east. At these orchards you won’t see the romantic, high-flowering, sheltering boughs that most of us associate with apple trees we drew in grade school. Most growers have replaced these old trees with smaller trees that bear more fruit that is easier to pick.
Scores of orchards welcome the public to grab a basket and head into the trees to “pick your own,” and the entire Valley can feel like one big fruit festival. Each week new varieties are ready for harvest. Parents lay tarps beneath trees and shake them. Fruit falls to the earth while children race around to avoid getting pummeled. Cosmetically imperfect apples are bound for the cider press and farmers sell the sweet stuff by the cup, jug or, if you’re lucky, as the defining ingredient in fresh cider donuts.
A few places have amusement parks with mazes and petting zoos. Others are just about enjoying the fruit and the scenery. A good place to begin is hudsonvalleyvoyager.com, a new web site that lists farms, orchards, and markets, and links to those that have web sites (remember this is the country—not everyone is internet equipped here).
Some of my favorite places to pick fall fruit in the valley include:
Rose Hill (just off Route 9 in Red Hook—in the Hudson Valley, not Brooklyn—845-758-9221) The Fraleighs grow a wide variety of apples in discreet blocks of trees, each named for a particular piece of land or specific occasion. There’s the Swamp Block, the Summerhouse Block, and the ‘84 Block, which commemorates the year Dave Fraleigh and his wife Karen were married. “If we haven’t got it, you don’t want it,” says Dave Fraleigh, talking about the Rose Hill varieties. This is a no-frills orchard which gets by more than passably on the beauty of the site. It is also where I tasted my very first apple right off a tree and I can remember the drippy sweet crunch to this day. There are pumpkins to pick as well and if Karen is selling her pies, take my advice and buy one.
Mead Orchards is a few miles up the road from Tivoli, a funky, time-seemed-to-stop village. Established in 1916, the picturesque orchard is now run by Sid and Beth Mead and their son Chuck and his wife Linda. Until a few years ago, the family sold apples wholesale but, squeezed by competition from ever-larger industrialized farms stateside and worldwide, they realized that to stay in business they would have to change direction. They have been removing their “industry standard” varieties (suited for supermarkets) and replacing them with varieties more popular with local customers. “We took out Romes and a lot of McIntosh,” says Beth Mead, “and are planting Galas, Honeycrisp and some Japanese strains.” In addition to cider and homegrown vegetables, visitors can often buy specialty Caribbean crops including Jamaican pumpkins grown by Austin Thomas and Nathanioneal Foster, two of their seasonal helpers from Jamaica.
Greig Farm (227 Pitcher Ln., Red Hook, 845.758.1234). The third most popular tourist site in Dutchess County (after the Franklin Roosevelt and Vanderbilt mansions). Just fifteen years ago 90 percent of the farm’s income came from wholesale apple sales. Now 90 percent comes from selling direct to the public, and Norman Greig runs a program of activities that includes a six-month season of pick-your-own and seasonal celebrations. “People used to come pick one hundred pounds of berries,” says Norman. “No one does that anymore. It takes three times as many customers to sell the same amount of fruit as we did ten years ago. The only way we can continue is to keep figuring out ways to get people to the farm.”
The farm is home to the new Gigi Market where there are picnic tables in addition to eat-in facilities and you can buy a variety of take-out sandwiches and prepared foods made from ingredients from local farms.
Montgomery Place Orchards. Talia Fincke and her husband Doug sell their heirloom (that’s right people, tomatoes aren’t the only heirlooms) apples in addition to better-known commercial varieties. This is the place to sample the Esopus Spitzenburg, rumored to be Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple, and the Newtown Pippin, the oldest commercially grown variety in the United States, first grown from a chance seedling in what is now Queens. In addition to their own fruit, Doug and Talia sell vegetables and dairy products from other small, local farmers. This is one of the most pleasant places to shop in the valley. Adam might be behind the counter, taking names of people who want eggs from his hens. Caroline and Talia might be in back sorting fruit, and Doug appears carrying baskets from the fields. This is a family that knows and loves their fruit and the enthusiasm is contagious. Listening to Talia describe an unex- pected crop of late berries is to understand the real connection between the pleasure of eating and the source of food.
If you’re here on a Sunday, visit the Rhinebeck Farmer’s Market, (East Market St. parking lot from 10 a.m.–2 p.m.). It’s the largest in the Hudson Valley and local farmers sell the freshest local produce, meats, poultry, cheese, prepared foods and baked goods.
Wilklow Orchards is the orchard most beloved by Brooklynites; Fred and his family are superstars at the Borough Hall and Fort Greene Greenmarkets. The Wilklows have been farming just outside New Paltz for six generations, and every fall they open up the whole farm, including the pumpkin patch and 50 acres of apples, to visitors. For children who tire of picking, there is a hay jump, hayrides and a small petting zoo, but even on the busiest days you can find a picnic table in a quiet corner of the orchard, which has mountain views that showcase the stunning fall colors. The Wilklows press their own cider on the farm, but best of all is the cider donuts when they’re still hot.
Stone Ridge Orchards (Route 213, Stone Ridge, 845.687.2587, stoneridgeorchard.com)
Getting here is as much fun as being here, as some of the area’s most spectacular scenery is on the way. The two-hundred-year-old orchard was revitalized in 1984 by Mike Biltonin who holds a master’s in pomology from Cornell and is one of the area’s leading spokespeople on sustainable farming. This is a real country orchard with a farmstand and picnic tables under a huge oak tree. Weekend hayrides.