Nothing says fall quite like rolling hillsides full of apple orchards, with fresh, ripe apples literally falling off the trees.
We don’t get much of a fall where I live on the coast — our trees stay green and our air stays warm — so it’s always a treat to journey inland to the beautiful foothills for a taste of the new season.
… Only we were still in the middle of a heat wave last week, so our first day of “fall” was a sunny 85ºF Saturday in the mountain hamlet of Oak Glen, about two hours outside of Los Angeles.
Oak Glen is a charming little community of apple orchards and farms tucked away in the San Bernardino Mountains.
The village is mostly centered around a main loop (Oak Glen Road) flanked with family farms, ranches, restaurants, and country stores. A handful of farms offer U-pick apples and berries, and since I have neither right now, my friend and I road tripped to the next county over for a slice of the slow life.
We stopped at the first farm we saw, Riley’s Farm, though I’ve heard the others are just as beautiful and tranquil. Like their website says: “We try not to be discouraged by current events in politics and economics — and you won’t be reminded of such when you come for a visit.”
Wonderful frame of mind to be in, isn’t it? Just you and the apples and the mountains.
The farm has acres of rotating apple, pear and berry orchards, and picking privileges go for a buck a person plus the cost of your harvest. You can pick a half bushel, a large bag or a small bag, or just buy from a crate of freshly picked apples (though that’s kinda silly for a city person to do, as that’s called the farmers’ market down the street).
We wandered around the farm sampling apples from the trees (but by the fifth apple, I was sure I was sick of them already and we hadn’t even filled our box yet!).
I went for the Senshu apples, Baldwin apples, and pears, and spent a leisurely afternoon ducking beneath the trees to find that perfect piece of fruit.
The way Riley’s prunes their trees keeps the branches low-hanging, so everything is easily within arm’s reach.
Besides apples and pears, the farm also offers U-pick flowers, U-pick pumpkins, U-press cider, a general store, restaurant, dance hall, live band, petting zoo, corn field, hay rides and probably many more things that I missed.
I was intrigued by these Salvador Dalí-esque pumpkins!
At the farm, I learned that true apple cider is the juice from freshly pressed apples and nothing else, whereas the apple juice that we see in the store is pasteurized and doctored with any number of additives, such as “natural flavors” and high fructose corn syrup. Unpasteurized cider goes through fermentation over time, and will eventually turn into apple cider vinegar!
The first week is perfect for drinking straight; the second week works wonderfully in mulled cider; and by the time the third week rolls around, you’ve got yourself raw apple cider vinegar with the mother (a gummy bacteria called Mycoderma aceti) in it. (As an aside, one of the best home remedies for a cold or cough is hot tea made with a few spoonfuls of raw apple cider vinegar and honey. I once had a cough that I couldn’t kick for three weeks; I drank this tea several times a day, and was cured in two days!)
Fascinated by the process, I could not resist pressing my own jug of cider. It took a lot of apples to make just one gallon, which we pulled from a bin of already-picked apples and fed through a wood and cast iron cider press.
A grinder (cranked by a flywheel) reduced the bushel of apples into bits of pulp…
… And then a pressing screw crushed all the juice out of the pulp.
The process was laborious but relatively quick; my friend and I made a gallon in about 15 minutes. Imagine our delight when we started turning the crank and out of the tub flowed a sparkling stream of apple cider!
That first sip of cider was heaven – it was like drinking a fresh, ripe apple right off the tree.
The cider lady told us to let a little air out of the jug once we drove out of the mountains so that the cider wouldn’t explode all over the car. Of course, we also took that as an excuse to take a swig straight from the jug. Such lushes we are.
I wish we’d had time to visit the rest of Oak Glen – rumor has it that the neighboring farm is famous for its apple beer! – but before we barely put the cap on our jug, the sun was setting and the village was winding down.
Though it was nearly midnight by the time we came home, the heady scent of apples was too much to resist. Our first apple concoction of the season? Apple-cinnamon monkey bread at two in the morning!