In today's fast-paced, disconnected world, one does not need to look hard to find the truth of this statement by Aldo Leopold. Most people apparently give little if any thought to where their food comes from or who provides it. Striking out on the Cider Trail provides a chance to reconnect your table to the land, and your family with the people who feed them.
Where is the Cider Trail, you ask? Officially, it does not exist. No travel guide lists it, nor will you find it on a map. That does not mean it can’t be found. Any road that gets you out of the city and into the country, discovering hometown adventure and locally grown and prepared food becomes the Cider Trail. Maybe it will lead you to an orchard, farm stand, farmers’ market, or harvest festival. It will certainly reward you with wonderful treasures of the harvest.
The name “Cider Trail” implies that finding cider is the ultimate goal of the trip. Well, maybe cider isn’t the ultimate goal, but it is a worthwhile goal. We’re not talking about that pale, filtered apple juice masquerading as cider in supermarkets. Oh, no. What we want is that mysterious, deliciously murky blend of autumn’s finest apples—the good stuff—available only once a year. Served straight and cold or hot and spiced, hard or sweet, cider tastes like autumn.
There is no recipe for fall cider, not really. There may be 10 or more apple varieties in a really good blend, and you can bet that at least one is a crabapple lending its tart kick to the mix. If you prefer something a bit more discriminating, a varietal cider just may fit the bill. More and more orchards and wineries have been exploring distinctive single-variety ciders, both hard and sweet.
Visit your local orchard and ask if they have a cider press. Chances are good they will, but even if they don’t they will likely carry fresh-pressed cider. Take some time to discover the rest of their offerings: Browse through the bins and baskets of fruit . . . apples, pears, and maybe even quince or persimmons wait to delight your taste buds this season.
Select a spread of apple varieties to sample, familiar standbys like Yellow Delicious, Winesap and Ginger Gold, and if you can find them, a few new-to-you antiques like Keepsake, Pomme Grieve and Sops-in-Wine. Sweet, tart, spicy, aromatic, crunchy, sandy, big, small, crisp, crunchy or sandy; there’s an apple for every taste. If you’re really fortunate, the orchard will offer mix-and-match apples, allowing you to customize your own personal blend. Imagine the apple pie you can make with a dozen-apple mix.
Don’t forget pears, either. There’s nothing quite like an Asian pear picked at the peak of ripeness, or a Bartlett or Anjou so juicy its nectar runs down your chin. Trust me, you won’t find that in a supermarket. While you’re there, pick up a few jars of homemade jams and jellies, or maybe a homemade peach pie or some apple dumplings.
Delights of the Farm Stand
While you’re on the road, keep an eye out for farm produce stands. Right now, they’ll be offering the broadest spread of produce of their entire season. Expect to find trays of late tomatoes and peppers, eggplants in every shape and shade from massive dark purple teardrops to lavender and white globes and neon violet “fingers,” and squash and pumpkins of more sizes, shapes and colors than you could possibly imagine. Dark green broccoli, purplish red and gray-green cabbages, and creamy cauliflower have also been rolling in from the fields. Perhaps you want a bushel or three of russet cobblers or sweet potatoes for storage? Don’t forget beets, in dark reds, pink-and-white candy stripes and golden yellow. The possibilities for soups and stews are endless!
Dark-green leafy kale and spinach, ruffles and heads of bright green or red lettuce, and rainbow stems of chard simply beg to be tossed into delightfully crunchy salads. Pick up a bundle of carrots and some celery, and maybe a bunch of radishes to julienne into the mix. Try slicing a Pink Lady or Braeburn apple from the orchard stop into your greens for a little extra zing!
There’s more color at the farm stand than the vegetables, as bright as they may be. Chrysanthemums bring a riot of autumn colors to roadside stands, from deepest burgundy and glowing orange to bright yellow, pink, and white. Pick up a few to plant in your flowerbeds for seasonal color for years to come, along with some straw bales and corn shocks for harvest-themed fall displays. For even more fall tones, be sure to get some Indian corn and rattle gourds to hang on your porch posts or add to your Thanksgiving table centerpiece. You may even find a few bouquets of late gladiolus and cockscombs for sale.
Autumn Farmers' Market
Next stop, the farmers’ markets, where you will also find cider, as well as apple pies and dumplings, fresh breads and cakes, local meats, cheeses and eggs, fresh produce, hand-crafted pastas and granolas, exotic spices, local honey, coffees, and teas. How about some herbed oils, fresh vinegars and fresh-baked croutons for that farm stand salad? You might want to bring a little red wagon or wheeled basket; you’re going to need it!
Be sure to take the opportunity to strike up a conversation with the sellers. They’ll be more than happy to make recommendations or tell you about their growing operations. Don’t be surprised if you are offered a personal farm tour. You may even discover vendors who provide Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions throughout the year. Don’t be afraid to ask if they run Organic or Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) programs.
If you’re really fortunate, you can find a few fall festivals in your area. Cider mill demonstrations are often featured at apple festivals, Living History events, steam shows, and other fall gatherings. You can watch as bushels of apples, red, green, and yellow, large, small, and crab, are fed into a snorting, wheezing monster of a mill. It may be steam powered, horse powered or tractor driven. Regardless of its driving force, it will make short order of crushing and pressing them down, delivering a steady flow of autumn’s essence. If the demonstration offers samples (most do) be sure to have a taste. Get a jug or two to take home for later, too.
While you’re there, take the time to shed the frantic energy of modern schedules and discover a slower way of life, gone, but not quite forgotten, not yet. Take a hayride. Search for your own Great Pumpkin in the most sincere pumpkin patch you’ll ever hope to see. Learn how apple butter was made a century ago. Watch spinners convert wool fleece into yarn.
Get to Know Them
The point to all of this is getting to know where your food comes from, and who brings it to your table. If after years of spending all of your grocery money at a supermarket, you should decide to shop somewhere else, the manager would never notice you left. If you become a regular customer at a local farmer’s produce stand, I guarantee that he or she will notice you and get to know you. Your grocery money will no doubt help pay the mortgage or land rent for their operation, and be vital to their survival. By buying even part of your weekly groceries direct from the producer, your family and their family will both eat better. As a bonus, you will know just where your food really comes from and how it gets to you.
There is no better time of year for a road trip than fall. Summer’s brick oven has been cooling down for the past few weeks, and we’ve reached that delicious window of brisk nights and glowing days. The autumn sunlight has finally been mellowing from the harsh brass of August to the warm burnished gold of October. The fields and forests have changed from their summer clothes of green to the fiery reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn.
The Cider Trail is waiting for you, calling you to come discover the local countryside, local food, and the men and women who bring it to your table. Adventure awaits, and the eating’s good!
Knowing Where to Go
Not sure which way to go? Most farmers’ markets are just a web search away. Most states maintain directories. Two notable national directories are listed below. Talking with stand holders will often yield other markets and stands to visit as well.
Local Harvest offers a nationwide locator for farmers’ markets, farm stands, CSA operations, and restaurants featuring locally sourced organic supplies. Their online catalog also assists in sourcing organic goods otherwise unavailable in your region.
This federally provided directory searches for farmers markets by zip code and travel radius, listing markets from closest to most distant. This service also offers information on number of vendors, seasons of operation, and availability of assistance programs.
Andrew Weidman is a freelance garden writer in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is a Penn State Master Gardener and a member of the Back Yard Fruit Growers.