Chase Ranch in the high desert near Palmdale made me an apple apostle. When I first discovered it on a fall drive along the winding folds of the Angeles Forest Highway, I didn't care much for the fresh fruit, my senses dulled by decades of bland supermarket offerings. Then I tried the ranch's Golden Delicious apples. Suddenly the name made sense. They were the brightest, sweetest samples I'd ever had. And unbelievably cheap for about $7 for a 20-plus-pound box. The following year, I visited the ranch in November at Granny Smith time, encountering the sharpest, clearest-tasting cooking apples. Both times, I dragged a box of fruit home, passing out the perfect orbs to everyone I met, spreading the Chase word.
This past September, I headed back for the first of the season's McIntosh harvest. Fanny Chase, a short, solid, cheerful woman, gave me a tour of the 1,300-tree orchard. She and her husband, Walter, began planting it in 1980 on five acres they cleared of scrub brush. Dressed in a T-shirt, blue pedal pushers and hot-pink tennis shoes, her hair fresh out of curlers but not yet combed, Fanny explained that the sea of trees, featuring six apple varieties (the others being Red Delicious, Stayman Winesap and Winter Banana), was "a retirement project that got out of hand."
Unlike Fanny, Walter, a former engineer who once worked on spy planes, tends toward the taciturn. During my first trips out, it seemed as if he'd sold me the apples only because I insisted. I suspect his interest in the orchard is its technical challenge, planting in perfectly straight rows, using mechanical weeding, proper irrigation and deploying newfangled devices that release pheromones to prevent worms and the need for crop spraying.
So it was Fanny who explained why the ranch's shallow canyon, at 3,600 feet above sea level, is ideal for apple-growing: "We get 400 hours of 40-degree-or-below weather annually." As for the miraculous price, she confided, it's "just to get rid of them. The orchard's not a profit-making thing."
The Saturday Santa Monica Farmers Market is the only other place the Chases sell their produce. Between pruning, weeding, watering, harvesting and keeping coyotes from chewing the irrigation lines, they are too busy for the farmers market circuit. "It's just the two of us working on it," Fanny said. "We call the kids in if we get desperate." "Desperate" means weekends when all the fruit wants off the trees at once, and "kids" means their four adult children and assorted grandchildren.
The trees are exceptionally heavy with fruit this year because the couple got sidetracked in the spring. "We would have thinned, like we were supposed to," Fanny explained with a wince, "but I had a bowling tournament in Sacramento."
All the better for apple lovers. On the long drive home, I had time to contemplate the many temptations my box of McIntoshes posed. What didn't get passed on to friends would be eaten out of hand or sliced and tossed into company salads of mixed baby lettuces, toasted walnuts and crumpled Gorgonzola. After that, the promise of Granny Smiths in November--not just for tarts or pies but also the curried apple soup I'd discovered at the Huntington Botanical Gardens--was as inspiring as the perfume of cool, fresh apples filling my car.
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Apple Soup with Curry Spices
From chef Nelson Bonilla of the Rose Garden Cafe at Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
2 tablespoons butter (1/4 stick)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 tablespoon curry powder
2 1/2 cups chicken broth (canned)
1/2 cup whipping cream
Salt and pepper
1 pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
Fresh chives, chopped
Melt butter in large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and saute 5 minutes. Add apples and saute until they begin to soften, 5 minutes. Add curry and cook 15 seconds. Stir in stock gradually. Simmer until apples are tender, 15 minutes. Add cream and simmer for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and cayenne if desired. Sprinkle with chives and serve.
Food Stylist: Christine Anthony-Masterson