A Last Visit to the Orchard

A few weeks ago, I found myself with an apple emergency. I was on my way to work, thinking about the talk and apple tasting I was scheduled to give at the Dublin town library that evening and realized that the bag of heirloom apples that I had set out the night before was still on my kitchen counter. And since my kitchen was an hour away, near Boston, there was no going back.

I panicked for a half-second before I realized I was heading towards apples, not away from them. Yankee’s offices in Dublin are just about 20 minutes away from one of New England’s best orchards, Alyson’s in Walpole. There, you’ll find more than 50 varieties of the fruit, with new breeds being added every year. A quick call to Alyson’s orchard manager, a true-blue New Englander and generous soul named Homer Dunn confirmed that there were still plenty of antique and unusual apple varieties in storage and even some fruit on the trees.

An orchard in late fall is a beautiful thing, though the crowds have long gone. When I found Homer having lunch in his office, he showed me two McIntosh apples he had just picked, fruit that looked firm and healthy, despite several nights of frost and that late October snow storm.

Then he took me into the sweet-smelling storage barn, a chilly room where the apples are stored in large crates until they’re shipped or sold. Unlike some growers, Homer doesn’t keep his fruit in sealed, so-called “Controlled Atmosphere”  rooms, where fruit can be held in suspended animation for months at a time. Instead, he simply tries to get it all sold while the apples are still fresh. So the heady perfume of that barn was a rare treat.

I selected a few bags of Ashmead’s Kernel, Lady apples, Hudson’s Golden Gem, Belle de Boskoop, Reine des Reinettes, and Esopus Spitzenburg. Then Homer mentioned that one of my favorite varieties, Calville Blanc, was still out on a tree. This was surprising, given that it was mid-November and I had picked my last Calvilles in early October. But I went out to take a look. These are excellent cooking apples dating back to late 17th Century France, and they are the traditional apple used in tarte tatin. I love them for their excellent baking quality, their flavor, and their unusual knobby appearance.

Calivlle Blanc tree

The fruit was a bit past peak, having lost some of its crispness and acidity. But it had a rich sweetness and looked all the more beautiful for being the last of the season.

I thanked Homer for the rescue, passed on a copy of my book, and took one last look at the view, already looking forward to next season.

Organic Inspiration!

Michael Phillips of Heartsong Farm. Photo by Stacey Cramp for The New York Times

This article in today’s New York Times reminds me that there is still so much more to learn about apples. Always. It’s about Michael Phillips, an apple grower in northern New Hampshire who has a thriving organic orchard just a short drive from the Canadian border. I have heard so much bad news about growing organic apples in New England. How hard it is, thanks to the fact that apple orchards are essentially monocultures filled with clones—that is, a paradise for insects or diseases whose prey has little natural resistance. And unlike the drier landscapes of the West, our wet, verdant climate serves up a larger menu of potential pests.

Phllips’s success makes me want to jump in the car and drive right up to Groveton, NH. Or at least order a copy of his new book, The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way (Chelsea Green).  According to the Times, “it explains how to grow fruit with nothing more lethal than neem oil and sprays made out of liquid fish fertilizer (which has fatty acids and enzymes lacking in pasteurized fish emulsion), homegrown horsetail and stinging nettles (both are high in silica and help leaves fend off fungal disease).”

Meanwhile, I had the most wonderful visit this week to Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, NH. More on that to come soon…

Reader masterpieces

A few weeks ago, I did a demo/signing at Stir, Barbara Lynch’s demonstration kitchen/cookbook store in the South End. It was a terrific time.  Everyone was really enthusiastic about apples, and I enjoyed making the quick bread-and-butter apple pickles and demonstrating how to make a great pie crust.

One of the attendees, a gastronomy student named Erin McLaughlin, just shared this photo of the Wrapples she made from the book. Don’t they look amazing?

She  made the apple tea cake, too, also gorgeous:

Apple Tea Cake by Erin

Me and Martha

I only watched my appearance on The Martha Stewart Show once, on the day it aired. It was such a peak experience to be in that studio cooking with Martha! Stewart! that I’d rather hold tight to my memory of it rather than have it all filtered through the view from the outside.

However, if you didn’t see the show and would like to see the clips, here you go:

The apple dumplings segment:


The apple butter segment:



Cider-Cheddar Fondue

In two weeks, one of my favorite New England festivals is taking place in Western Massachusetts. Cider Days is a celebration of all things apple, with orchard tours, apple tastings, cidermaking, a grand “cider salon” with samples from around the world (that’s hard cider, not juice), workshops, kids’ activities, and more. Events take place all over Franklin County. This is such a wonderful recognition of the important place apples and cider have in our culinary history, and it’s just a very tasty and beautiful way to spend a day.

I’ll be doing a “Cooking with Cider” demonstration on Saturday, the 5th, at 11 a.m. at the Green Emporium in Colrain, Massachusetts. I plan to do one savory dish (maybe the cider-braised beef brisket) and one sweet one (apple dumplings cider-rum sauce). There will be samples, so be sure to come!

Meanwhile, in honor of the great hard cider producers in our region, here’s a recipe for cheddar-cider fondue that I came up with last week, and which I have now added to my “I wish I’d put this inthe book file. It’s a reinterpretation of the classic fondue recipe found in The Joy of Cooking, only made with cheddar, hard cider, and apple brandy instead of the traditional French Gruyère, white wine, and kirsch. Sadly, I failed take a photo, but I can assure you it looks like just about every other cheese fondue you’ve seen. Enjoy!

New England Cheddar-Cider Fondue

Total time: 20 minutes; hands-on time: 20 minutes

1 clove garlic, peeled and halved

1 1/4 cups  medium-dry hard cider, (I recommend local ciders from Farnum Hill in NH, West Country Winery in NH or Furnace Brook Winery in MA

1 pound Cheddar cheese, grated (you can also use Gruyère or Gouda)

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons apple brandy or applejack

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Assorted accompaniments, such as crusty French bread; boiled fingerling potatoes; apple or pear slices; steamed cauliflower, broccoli, or green beans; roasted Brussels sprouts; or sausage slices

Rub the inside of a 3- to 4-quart pot with the garlic clove, then discard. Add the cider and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the cheese and nutmeg and stir with a wooden spoon until the cheese is melted. Don’t worry if it doesn’t blend with the cider…that will happen later.

In a small bowl, stir the cornstarch with the brandy. Add to the cheese mixture and stir until smooth, about 5 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with accompaniments of your choice. Yield: 4 to 6 servings

The Big Apple: Behind the Scenes at The Martha Stewart Show

Exciting times this week! I was in New York yesterday making apple dumplings and apple butter with none other than Martha Stewart for her Martha Show. The episodes will air this Thursday, October 20, at 10 a.m. on the Hallmark Channel.

Officially listed

Anyone who has paid attention to food or home design or crafts or magazines or television can imagine how exciting this was. I’ll never forget the first time I leafed through my mother’s copy of Martha’s first book, Entertaining, in 1982. Pouring over those pages like an 11-year-old Talmudic scholar, I absorbed that impossibly perfect vision of domestic life as a roadmap for what I wanted my grown-up life to look like.  Of course, my grown-up home doesn’t come close to looking like Martha’s. I could never match her precision or drive, let alone her resources. But her products still inspire me. Her team boasts some of the most talented designers, cooks, crafters, producers, and stylists in the field today, so heading to the studios was like being called to the Mother Ship of creativity. And I’m grateful for her message that the domestic sphere can be important and beautiful. Apparently, she also believes that the professional sphere should be beautiful, too, because her studios are stunning. The first view, after snaking our way through several hallways, was of a very swanky dressing room.

The dressing room, with signature Martha colors and MSL-branded furniture, naturally.

Across the hall was the Green Room, with its display of Emmys.  Martha’s office was just around the corner, but the frosted glass gave me only brief glimpses of her perfectly layered blonde tresses.

I was then called into the kitchen, to go over the dishes we were to prepare that day: apple dumplings with cider-rum sauce and overnight apple butter. The kitchen team, like everyone else, was incredibly gracious and welcoming, eager to make sure that what went on set was true to my vision for the recipes. I rehearsed my segment with producer Greta Anthony, had the makeup and hair treatment (including false eyelashes and a wing-y head of curls that were designed to give my flat hair some pizzazz and keep it out of my face), and after some torturous hurry-up-and-waiting and deep breathing, it was showtime. Walking toward set, I felt like a tiny thing, a mouse headed into the lion’s ring. But within seconds,  all fear dissipated. Martha was warm and gracious and TALL. A head and a long model’s neck above me even if she hadn’t been wearing stilettos, which she was.

I heard the staff and audience cheering me on and got swept up in the good feeling.

Discussing the dough. Martha can roll out pastry like a master.

My husband, Scott, was in the Green Room and he took these shots off the monitor.

We got through the dumplings, paused for a break, and then it was time for the apple butter.

“Martha, I just love my slow cooker!”

The final segment was  shorter. I did make the mistake of calling the apple butter a “dump and go recipe,” to which she shot back, “I don’t like the word ‘dump.'”

But where some might have read “scolding” I read, “sassy,” so I came back with “Ok, it’s an ‘artfully arrange and go recipe*,” and she smiled. I think she has a better sense of humor than some people might assume.

In fact, as I left the set, the producers said, “Wow, you could tell that Martha really liked you!” I think that’s a good thing.

Leaving the set with Kyle, the stage manager who keeps everyone calm and happy backstage

My one regret: Because Martha Stewart Omnimedia has its own magazine, they were reluctant to mention my Yankee title in my intro, so my real employer went unmentioned. It would’ve been nice to give a shout-out to my New England family.

*All quotes paraphrased until I can watch the actual tape on Thursday.

A Different Sort of Antiquing

I want to take you to a very special orchard in Bolton, Massachusetts. It’s one of a growing number of American orchards specializing in antique or “heirloom” apples.

This is Nashoba Valley Winery, where apples, grapes, peaches, and other fruits are grown  and then turned into wines, spirits, and multi-course meals at the on-site restaurant, J’s. It’s a remarkably beautiful setting of rolling hills and ponds and trees and vines heavy with ripe fruit. And my favorite corner, naturally, is the special antique apple orchard in the back of the property. You have to make an appointment to pick here—there are about 90 varieties of antiques, but only a few trees for each, so they have to keep track—but anyone can come.

The exuberant tree I photographed above is a winter banana that looks like something out of Dr. Seuss. These are some of the prettiest apples you’ll ever see, though the flavor won’t knock your socks off. It’s pleasantly sweet, just not really vibrant. It’s a good keeper, though, and after a few months in storage can, indeed, develop banana flavors.

Two of my favorite antique apples are the Ashmead’s Kernel and the Calville Blanc d’Hiver.

Ashmead’s dates back to the turn of the 18th century in England and has an incredibly rich flavor that reminds me of honeyed Champagne. Calville is a French variety from the late 1600s and is the traditional apple used in the wonderful caramel apple tart called  tarte tatin. It is firm and very tart when first picked, but it grows sweeter in storage.

Now a note on “antique” or “heirloom” apples.  In the apple world, these interchangeable terms describe traditional apple varieties that have been reproduced for some number of decades or centuries via grafting. In common parlance, heirlooms are defined by what they are not: that is, newly bred, mass-produced commodity fruit. That’s not a terribly scientific definition, but it functions well. The Granny Smith you buy at Shaw’s? Not an heirloom. The Seek-No-Further you picked up at the local farmers’ market? An heirloom.

With other plants, such as berries and tomatoes, heirlooms are defined more rigorously,
describing varieties grown from seed and pollinated by natural means, such as insects or wind (this is in contrast with hybrid plants, in which one plant is deliberately hand-pollinated with the pollen from another plant). But since apples don’t reproduce true from seed and must be cloned via grafting, that definition doesn’t apply. Still, calling an apple an antique or heirloom connects us to the long history of this fruit and hopefully gives us a sense of wonder that we can still eat the same fruits that our ancestors did.