apple picking

Yesterday B. and I joined his brother and sister-in-law for a trip out of the city to pick apples. I have never been apple picking, that I can remember. Apples don’t grow so well in Southern Maryland where I grew up — too hot, I guess — and so I haven’t ever taken part in this fall ritual.

In Boston, where the air is cooler and winter looms, everyone has been talking of going apple picking. Our friends brought over apple dumplings last weekend, bounty from their picking trips, and we stuffed ourselves with warm apple, coated in buttery cinnamon sugar and wrapped in rich pastry. And so, yesterday morning, when the aforementioned brother and sister-in-law arrived at my apartment, we were ready to go.

Once we escaped the snarled traffic around Harvard Square and emerged onto the interstate, it was fall. I haven’t been out of the city in several weeks — in fact, for the most part, my existence has been simply to ride the four stops to school on the T, and then turn around and ride back; I haven’t really even seen much of Boston and so hadn’t realized that all around it, the leaves have been changing. On Boston Common downtown, the leaves are just barely edged with color and every day when I emerge from the subway I scan branches for signs of change. I am eager for the crisp air of fall; almost impatient for it, after five years of going without.

Well, it must be colder in the suburbs. When the clustered homes of Cambridge gave way to woodsy countryside, the trees blazed orange and red along the highway. My sister-in-law thought the whole of it looked like fire; in Poland, she said, the trees just turn yellow, and fall is “golden.” Our view was overwhelmingly orange, however; like a scene from a childrens’ Halloween book.

On TV and in movies, New England is nearly always depicted in fall. I felt as though we were driving through a stereotype, a stage set, so perfect was the intersection of my imagined Massachusetts countryside and the reality outside my window. It wasn’t just the color of the trees; we drove through small towns of white steeples and wood shingled stores. Thick, old oaks stood watch over curving two-lane roads. As we made our last turn before reaching the farm that was our destination, the trees seemed to be at their reddest.

An old white barn, complete with cupola, marked the entrance to Shelburne Farms. A selection of pumpkins and mums, those other harbingers of autumn, lined one side of the gravel driveway. We parked and paid for bags to hold our apple harvest: $10 for the 10-pound bag, $15 for the 20-pounder. B. and I selected the smaller of the two (and we still have more than enough apples).

It’s been a long time since I have tramped through a field’s worth of unmowed grass and smelled the earthiness of fall. I was reminded of walking the grounds of horse shows (which always took place at sprawling, beautiful farms) when I was younger. We strolled through rows of trees, their branches spotted with red fruit, until we came upon a name that intrigued us — Cortland, Empire, Melrose, Macoun. Shelburne Farms grows more than 20 varieties of apples, and each row of trees was labeled with a small yellow sign. Each new variety meant another sample. We pulled red balls from deep within the foliage of the trees and bit heartily into our finds. There was something so innocent and enjoyable about that first bite of crisp apple. Each one brought a distinct flavor; the Baldwins were tart; the Melrose were sugary sweet. We loaded our bags with a few of each.

An hour or so in the orchard, and our bags grew heavy. We talked about what to do with all of our apples. B., I knew, would make apple pie, his family recipe with oats and sugar crumble on top. My sister-in-law grew up in rural Poland and had picked apples as a child. She was planning not only desserts, but entire meals: crepes, apple potato pancakes, applesauce. I had vague ideas of flipping through cookbooks and trying something new: an apple tart, some kind of cake?

Before we left the farm, we stopped by the store. There were lines for apple doughnuts, apple cobbler and apple fritters. We discovered cheddar cheese made fresh on the farm. The samples were sharp and dry, almost oakey, like a dry white wine. It’s a style of cheese common in New England and a style that I love and have missed. It’s rarer in California, because California has its own dairies and distinctive cheeses.

I picked up a pumpkin, too. I couldn’t help it. I have no front step to sit it on, but it’s only a small one and I’ve set it on my little TV to remind me of the red-leafed trees and the dry smell of autumn in the country.

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