Apple picking time

 Apples, a fall treat. — JOgden/Flickr

Apples, a fall treat. — JOgden/Flickr

When you think of it, apples carry a lot of freight for a simple, shiny fruit. They speak of temptation (Adam and Eve’s), health (apple a day keeps the doctor away) and affection (apple of my eye). No one associates such strong sentiment with a banana or a pear.

Our affinity for apples is deeply rooted. Fall is definitely in the air when apple trees are bending low with weight of ripening fruit but the crisp crunch of a fresh apple is a small pleasure in any season. These are good keepers, too, providing fodder for the apple pies, strudels, fritters and such that figure in holiday feasts and keep us going through the long winter.

Originally from Central Asia, apples made their way to Europe thousands of years ago and then traveled to America with the early settlers. We have our own apple-obsessed American icon in the person of Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman (1774-1845), who is fondly remembered as an itinerant strewer of apple seeds throughout the newborn nation.

Actually, there was nothing random about his travels and his plantings. He established not orchards but apple nurseries, fenced against livestock and entrusted to the care of neighbors between his sporadic visits. On his death he left behind 12,000 acres of apple nurseries in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, no small estate.

Johnny Appleseed preached his own version of the gospel along the way, but before you get wholesome Mom-and-apple pie feelings about his career, consider the primary use of apples in the colonial era and beyond: hard cider, yes, liquor. Before there was wheat, barley or hops there were apple trees in abundance, better suited to the climate of early settlements.

His apples weren’t modern, grafted varieties bred for sweet eating but were bitter, seed-grown, inedible things suitable only for making hooch. Food guru Michael Pollan writes about it “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World.”

“Really, what Johnny Appleseed was doing and the reason he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana was he was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier,” Pollan writes.” He was our American Dionysus.”

All roads lead to New Jersey, I always say, and so it is with alcoholic apple drinks. The oldest commercial distillery in the country is headquartered here in Colts Neck – Laird and Company, producers of applejack, apple brandy and “Jersey Lightning,” a clear, 100-proof variation. Dating its history to 1698 and counting both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln among its fans, Laird’s is family owned and run to this day.

Lisa Laird Dunn, ninth generation, is one of the current executives, holding the title of vice president and world ambassador. Laird’s apple liquors are sold in 13 countries with Australia the second largest consumer after the US. Sitting in the 300-year-old farmhouse on the Laird site with the official office dog, (Jack, of course), Dunn credits the craft cocktail trend of recent years for bringing fresh attention to small-scale and relatively unfamiliar products like her company’s line.

“There’s a lot of pride in what we do, but as I get older, I see it as a lot of responsibility, too,” says Dunn. “You don’t want to be the generation that screws it up.”

The Laird distillery is in Virginia now, but the barreled product is trucked to Colts Neck and aged on the property, just as in centuries past.

“I can’t see us ever leaving New Jersey,” Dunn says. “Our history is here – it’s home.”

 Apple processing at Laird’s, Colts Neck, NJ. — Courtesy Laird & Co.

Apple processing at Laird’s, Colts Neck, NJ. — Courtesy Laird & Co.

OF CIDER, MULLED AND NOT

Freshly pressed apple juice, commonly referred to as cider, is opaque and not clear like bottled apple juice in supermarkets. The unfiltered stuff, often unpasteurized, includes naturally occurring yeasts that will ferment over time, eventually yielding apple cider vinegar – so drink it within a few days unless vinegar is what you’re after.

A cold glass of earthy cider is just the thing on a warm Indian summer day. But as winter sets in, the hot version with spices, known as mulled cider, is an excellent warm-up. Here’s how we do it at my house:

Pour a gallon or two of cider into a large pot. Add thick slices of orange studded with whole cloves and toss in 3 or four sticks of cinnamon. If you like it spicier, add a half-teaspoon of nutmeg and/or allspice. Simmer and serve, filling the house with a lovely aroma. Spiking the cider with dark rum, apple brandy or applejack gives it a nice little kick.

WHERE TO FIND JERSEY APPLES

Apples are bigger than you might think in New Jersey, the third most valuable crop after tomatoes and blueberries. A total of 36 million pounds were grown in 2016, a harvest worth $32.6 million, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

The department’s Jersey Fresh website has a page devoted to apples with a searchable “where to buy” data base that lists (by county) orchards, farm stands and farmers markets offering the local product. To sort the eating from the baking types, profiles of New Jersey varieties are included.

The website also lists apple events, many featured during season-long fall harvest festivals. Want to sit down to an apple pancake breakfast or enter an apple pie contest? Find out how and where.

If you’re itching to pick your own, head to a separate page that gives you that information by county on which orchards welcome do-it-yourselfers