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Acres of apples

Oak Glen, with its myriad varieties, is just a country drive away.

October 19, 2005|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

THE wholesome scent of apples stirs our hearts.

Apples are the quintessential American fruit; they speak of a time of homemade pleasures created from the fruit of the backyard tree: cider, apple butter, pies, dumplings.

Until the mid-1940s, nearly all of Southern California's apples actually came from a spot in our own collective backyard -- the foothill hamlet in eastern San Bernardino County known as Oak Glen. Oak Glen apples were even shipped around the world.

Today, apples from Washington and Oregon fill our supermarkets, but Oak Glen, near Yucaipa, has become a mecca for apple lovers because of the quality and amazing number of varieties of the fruit grown here -- most of which can't be found at farmers markets. About a dozen ranches raise about 100 varieties, including modern favorites such as Cameo and Pink Lady, a growing number of exotics such as Winter Banana and Sekai Ichi, and Oak Glen oldies such as Rome Beauty, Stayman Winesap, a unique pie apple known as Glen Seedling and the dramatically dark-skinned Arkansas Black.

Rare among specialty fruit-growing areas, Oak Glen never sells through farmers markets, where the few apples you see come from farther away, either the Central Coast or the Sierra foothills. Once in a while, Vons markets will feature some Oak Glen apples. But outside of that, you just have to go up to the Glen and buy directly from the growers.

There's more to the place than apples. Most orchards also make cider. Because apple varieties ripen at different times, this means the apples being used change throughout the season, so the cider from any orchard has a subtly different flavor from week to week. There's an art to blending the sweet and the tart, the mellow and the perfumed in a cider.

Nearly all Oak Glen cider is unpasteurized. If the bottle sits around for a couple of weeks, it will ferment, first becoming fizzy, then turning into hard cider. In the end, it will become apple cider vinegar -- with a far richer apple flavor than commercial cider vinegar. "A lot of people buy cider by the case just to let it turn into vinegar," says Alison Law-Mathisen of Mom's Country Orchard.

Many places sell apple butter, that nearly forgotten spread that's like a concentrate of applesauce. Apple jelly, apple syrup, apple sauce, even apple salsa show up on the shelves. And because Oak Glen farmers also raise cherries and raspberries, other preserves are available too.

Oak Glen is 75 miles from downtown L.A., and if you want the feeling of being way out in the country, it's loaded with that. In drought years (fortunately, this year set records for rainfall), when there aren't many wild berries in the hills, bears have been known to come down and raid the apples. Bears!

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A polished product

THE first orchard you reach when you drive up from Yucaipa is Wood Acres. The apple shed is a tiny cinderblock room below Pat Wood's antique shop, with just enough space for some crates of apples and an antique apple-polishing machine.

Why a polisher? "Never wash an apple if you're not going to eat it right away," Jim Wood says. "The water gets into the blossom end and there's no way to get it out, and it hastens rotting."

Although the place is tiny, visitors can't just rush in and out.

"Years ago," says Pat Wood, "we established the policy that once you enter the shed, you can't buy any apples without tasting all the varieties first."

By that she means the apples that are ripe on a given day, not all 38 varieties the couple raise. They specialize in unusual apples, such as Cinnamon Spice (which actually does have cinnamon flavor at room temperature) and Calville Blanc d'Hiver (the classic French dessert apple). And they have developed their own variety, Paul's Big Green. "It's from a sapling that showed up under a Red Delicious," says Jim Wood. It's a green-skinned apple that tastes like a Delicious, but with crisper flesh.

Not far from Wood Acres, Parrish Pioneer Ranch is the oldest operation here, dating from the 1860s, when Enoch Parrish planted the first apples in the Glen. It's a complex of shops that includes a restaurant, an artist's studio and an antique shop. On weekends it has entertainment -- country music by Yodeling Merle and an Old West shootout by a stunt team (Sundays only).

You find the apples, probably about 10 varieties at a time, in a huge converted barn of a store. Among them might be a very good variety developed at Parrish: Vasquez, a Granny Smith-Rome Beauty cross, as crisp and juicy as Granny Smith but sweeter.

The only other business that stays open all year is Mom's Country Orchard. During apple season, it sells apples for a couple of smaller orchards as well as its own, and you may see Virginia Winesap, Pearmain and Blacktwig along with more familiar varieties. At other times of year it handles local produce of various kinds, and in spring it even sells apple trees for planting.

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