JAFFREY, N.H. — Because New Englanders put so much stock in earning their pleasures, the apples they pick themselves always taste better than the store-bought kind.
This isn't just a trick of the Puritan conscience. Unwaxed, fresh from the tree and popping with juice, Macs especially really are better (and cheaper).
But that's just the half of it. The real point, as more and more outlanders discover each autumn, is that picking your own apples is a wonderful excuse to get out and enjoy one of the greatest visual feasts this planet has to offer--the incomparably incandescent colors of upper New England's fall foliage.
Nowhere in the Northeast is it easier to enjoy the best of both these treats than in the orchards of New Hampshire's Monadnock Mountain Region between late September and mid-October when the apples ripen as the leaves reach their peak of color.
Villages and Mill Towns
Just 60 miles northwest of Boston, this is a 30-by-40-mile area where you still find dairy farms and covered bridges. The stony, reigning summit of Grand Monadnock is visible from some point near each of the region's 39 steeple-topped villages and rosy brick mill towns.
Stretched out beneath this 3,165-foot height, a chain of lower-lying but brilliantly forested Monadnocks leads east to Lyndeborough. One of them, Rose Mountain, shares its name with a farm established by the son of a Revolutionary War veteran.
Owned by Jan and Jack McEwan, Rose Farm encompasses 45 acres of orchards centering around a maple-shaded white clapboard farmhouse, a big red barn and, typical of the 70-odd pick-your-own apple farms that dot the state, a meadow jampacked with scores of cars, close to half of them from out of state--some from as far away as Florida, California, even Alaska.
As the doors slam shut on these pickup trucks and Cadillacs, Toyotas and Volvos, children who remember their last year's visit wave "Hi" to the McEwans' towheaded 8-year-old daughter Jessie, give a couple of quick pats to her two white German shepherds, then run off ahead of their parents to check on the progress of the livestock.
Mini-Zoo in the Barn
Inside the barn, Milly, the sow, and her month-old litter are the stars of the show. In the next stall, the family cat curls up against a dozing goat to nap in a puddle of sunlight. Little hands stretch into the sheep stall to pat the two ewes.
Meanwhile, adults shuffle through the rustling fallen leaves to the Apple Shop. Overhead, the purple-blue sky is brilliant, the wind has the snap of tart cider and the air is crisp as a McIntosh apple.
The leaves of the white birch glow like candle flames, the ash have turned purple, the red oaks appear to have caught fire and the maples, the trees that above all are responsible for New England's conflagration of color, seem lit from within by every shade of fire from bright orange to vermilion.
Inside the Apple Shop everything needed for a pick-your-own expedition is on hand, including directions to the orchards where the fruit is ripest, plus instructions.
Just Lift and Twist
"If you gently lift and twist the apple, placing your thumb against the stem, it will come off the tree easily," advises Jack McEwan, a Pan Am pilot as well as an apple farmer. His wife, Jan, is full of friendly chatter and helpful bits of lore. The question she hears most often is what to pick.
"What do you want to use them for?" she asks. For pies or tarts she might recommend the week's ripe crop of Golden Delicious; for salads, the Cortlands that stay white when cut; for keeping well into winter, a cache of Northern Spy. (Stash them in the refrigerator inside a plastic bag with a few air holes.)
Each of Rose Farm's 30 varieties has its own best picking time during a harvest season that begins in late August when the green Gravensteins ripen and extends into mid-October when Winesaps are at their prime.
An Abundance of Choices
"Here, try some of these," Jan says, leading the way to a table where samples of a dozen varieties are arrayed. Crescents of Baldwin, Macoun and Wealthy apples are apt to share the testing table with the more exotically named Vista Bella or the spicy Mutsu and with apples named for their colors: Burgundy, Chenango Strawberry, Winter Banana and the yellow-to-red Opalescent.
Still and all, it's the McIntosh trees that most people head for. Farmers long ago discovered that something special about the region's acid soil and high elevation, combined with cool nights and sunny days, bring this variety to perfection.
In the orchards, teen-age helpers distribute bushel boxes (picking half a boxful is the minimum). Last year, Rose Farm's pick-your-own price of $4.50 for half a bushel was almost a third less than nearby supermarkets were charging.