What’s the best apple?
“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 Brooklyn’s Red Hook. We mean the town up in Dutchess County that’s home to 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 right off the trees and enjoy a bucolic rural experience less than two hours from Midtown.
Even the most carefully handled fruit cannot compare with one plucked from the branch in the autumn sun. Although local orchards use special airtight coolers to store apples for year-round sales, the annual harvest is right now, and the orchards of Ulster and Columbia counties are heavy with the sweet crop. 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 state, second only to Washington in domestic yield, with Hudson Valley orchards picking about eight million bushels of fruit annually. But the Empire State apple crop actually had its start on what is now the corner of Third Avenue and 13th Street, when New Netherlands governor Peter Stuyvesant planted our original apple tree. Settlers moving north into the Hudson Valley planted varieties prized more for taste than cosmetic perfection. The apples’ names reflected their region and appearance, like Black Gilliflower, a dessert apple that when fully ripe is nearly black, and the Roxbury (or Russet), a late and hardy golden fruit with dark-brown spots that keeps well through winter.
Like people, apples reproduce sexually, so if you plant a seed you’ll get a brand new baby that may or may not bear many physical characteristics of its parents. Most trees grown from seed (those are called “pippins”) are unpalatable, which is why modern orchards instead plant cuttings. Every named apple, from Granny Smith to Winesap, is grown from cuttings of a single lucky pippin that hit the taste jackpot. At least 500 varieties of apples that were beloved a century ago were pippins first grown in New York State, although today average Americans sample only six varieties during their entire lives.
Plus, it’s doubtful that any of those apples of yesteryear, however delectable, could find a place on today’s Fairway or Key Food shelves, where appearance is mainly what 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 to middlemen for resale to retailers.
Domestic apple production here and elsewhere has taken a hit from global overproduction, with imports of cheap concentrate from China depressing the juice market so much that many growers can’t compete, and let their fruit rot on the ground. Lucky for you, small orchards near New York City have responded by instead selling their crop directly 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 trees with the romantic, high-flowering, sheltering boughs 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, and in September and October the entire Valley can feel like one big fruit festival, with new varieties ripening each week. A good place to begin is with these favorites below or hudsonvalleyvoyager.com, which lists farms, orchards and markets, and links to those that have Web sites. A few spots have amusement parks with mazes and petting zoos. Others are just about enjoying the fruit and the bucolic rural feel. Parents lay tarps beneath trees and shake, fruit falls to the earth and children race around to avoid getting pummeled. Cosmetically imperfect fruits head for the cider press to be sold by the cup, jug or, if you’re lucky, as the defining ingredient in fresh cider donuts.
19 Rose Hill, Red Hook
A late-19th-century railroad publication’s listing of summer boarding houses described this spot as “perfectly healthy with plenty of shade and excellent water.” The Fraleighs, who have run this orchard for six generations, no longer take “transients for $1 a day” but still welcome visitors to their very secluded orchards where they can pick apples, raspberries, pumpkins and sometimes even late peaches. At the small farm stand, Karen Fraleigh sells her pies as well as homemade preserves, including a terrific peach-raspberry combo.
15 Scism Road, Tivoli
This orchard is just a few miles up the road from Tivoli, a funky, time-seemed-to-stop village where you can fortify yourself with Mikee Gonella’s (Tivoli Bread and Baking) scones, sticky buns and baguettes. This picturesque farm was founded in 1916 and is now one of the area’s most productive orchards, growing a large variety of apples and insuring continuance by putting 100 acres into permanent conservation. Chuck is one of only nine growers chosen by the Geneva/Cornell University Apple Breeding Program to grow two new apple varieties, the as-yet-unnamed New York 1, an offshoot of the sweet and crunchy Honeycrisp, and New York 2, great for baking and packed with vitamin C. In addition to cider and homegrown vegetables, including pumpkins, there are often specialty Caribbean crops grown by Keith Bailey and Mikey Tyrel, two of the farm’s longtime seasonal helpers from Jamaica.
Cedar Heights Orchard
7 Crosby Road, Rhinebeck
This is the only pick-your-own apple orchard in Rhinebeck—and one of the most beautiful in the entire Valley. The 150-year-old orchard is meticulously cared for by Bill and Arvia Morris, who grow a variety of apples on sloping hills offering stunning Catskill and Taconic Mountain views. The family has just planted new trees for the hard cider they plan to start bottling in a few years. Until then, pick up some provisions from one of the nearby Rhinebeck or Red Hook village stores, lay out a blanket and spend a tranquil afternoon in the shade of picture-perfect trees.
342 Pancake Hollow Road, Highland
The Wilklows have been farming just outside the college town of 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. It’s a favorite for families, though city slickers will skip the silly store and head straight out to the hills for terrific fruit and beautiful views. 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. The Wilklows press their own cider on the farm, but best of all are the cider donuts when they are hot from the fryer.
9 Fishkill Farms Road, Hopewell Junction
One of Manhattan’s closest diversified farm/orchards was founded in 1914 by Henry Morgenthau Jr., secretary of the treasury under FDR. The barns and 270 acres passed onto his son, Robert Morgenthau, who served for 35 years as Manhattan district attorney until retiring last year. Now Morgenthau is back on the farm with his son Josh, growing a large variety of vegetables and fruits, and raising sheep and pastured chickens whose eggs are for sale in the on-site market. Hayrides through the orchards delight kids, and weekend barbecues stave off hunger pangs. Apple aficionados can join the farm’s apple CSA.
Montgomery Place Orchards
8 Davis Way, Red Hook
Talia and Doug Fincke are the area’s heirloom apple experts with new varieties at the stand each week and they are opening their orchards to the public for the very first time this year on Open Farm Days, the first Saturday of each month (September 9, October 2 and November 6). 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 homegrown fruit, Doug and Talia sell vegetables and specialty cheeses, dairy products and artisanal pasta from other local farmers and producers. This is one of the most pleasant places to shop in the Valley with a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff who simply love their fruit.