Photograph by Alanna Hale
From the September 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
British colonists imported hundreds of their favorite apple varieties in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, 2,500 of the world’s 7,000 varieties are grown in the U.S., so there’s no reason to limit yourself to the low-hanging heirloom fruit. Orchard visitors can taste a range of products, including cider donuts, apple candy, and spirits such as applejack brandy. So take to the roads to explore fall’s best orchards, a pastime as American as, well, apple pie.
Though its apple heritage has taken a backseat to Civil War tourism, the lush Shenandoah Valley—from Roanoke to Harpers Ferry (West Virginia)—has dozens of pick-your-own (P.Y.O.) orchards to stock up on local goodies such as apple butter and cider vinegar. Surrounded by stone buildings and barns, the historic Stribling Orchard in Markham is a century-old orchard where you can nab varieties like Smokehouse, Idared, and York, which has a unique lopsided shape. The estate, known for its mountain views, also has a general store filled with picnic fare.
The increasingly sophisticated viticulture of New York’s Finger Lakes is intertwined with the region’s enduring apple trade. But a spirits-based industry has developed since the state passed a small-batch distillery law in 2007. Hidden in the verdant hills of Lafayette, Beak and Skiff is a local favorite P.Y.O. orchard and the only place in the region to buy flash-pasteurized apple cider. It recently opened a copper distillery where delicately fragrant vodka is made from distilled cider. Sample maplejack liqueur—apple brandy sweetened with maple syrup—at Finger Lakes Distilling overlooking Seneca Lake. Purists and pie bakers will want to head to Black Diamond Farm, an orchard in Trumansburg that specializes in antique varieties like the nutty Margil and the Esopus Spitzenberg, said to be Thomas Jefferson’s favorite.
Once visited by Julia Child, Weston’s Antique Apple Orchard just outside of Milwaukee in New Berlin grows more than 100 varieties of heirloom apples, including the Strawberry Chenango, so delicate it needs to be picked with gloves. Locals will send you 25 minutes south of Milwaukee to Awe’s Orchard in Franklin for a batch of soft, warm cider donuts. Farther south in Sturtevant, the Apple Holler Orchard and Restaurant serves up an applewood-smoked turkey dinner.
Morning fog and hot sunny afternoons produce thin-skinned and intensely aromatic apples in Mendocino County. Here, shiny Philo Gold and King Davids grow alongside Pinot Noir grapes in the Anderson Valley. The former owners of the French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley opened the Apple Farm in Philo. The farm’s three guest cottages sit in the middle of a biodynamic apple orchard, adjacent to Hendy Woods State Park. Visitors and overnighters alike are invited to wander the property. Cooking classes and meals like smoked trout and apples are good ways to get a deeper understanding of the terroir.
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