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Thursday, October 21, 2010

From Orchard to Cider at Eat'n Park - The Journey of the Apple, Part 1

Fall is now upon us. It’s amazing how fast the summer has gone. Fall to me means pumpkin pie, winter squash and apple cider. If you haven’t visited your neighborhood Eat’n Park this month, I would highly recommend it. Along with our fall specials, we are now featuring unbelievable apple cider from several local orchards. With orchard-fresh cider, just the right spices, and an orange slice, this is the best hot cider you'll find anywhere!

One of the orchards supplying our cider is Dawson’s Orchards, located in Enon Valley, PA – about an hour and a half north of Pittsburgh. Owned and operated by Carolyn and Scott McQuiston, Dawson’s grows more than 15 varieties of apples, as well as an assortment of other fruits including peaches, pears, nectarines, plums, and berries. Because Scott and Carolyn are some of the nicest folks I’ve ever met, I asked them to indulge my curiosity by showing me just how an apple is grown, harvested, processed, and consumed, from orchard to cider press to Eat’n Park. Of course, they obliged!

As Scott led me through the orchards, two of the first things I noticed were metal pots interspersed throughout the rows of apple trees, and a large windmill towering 40 feet above the orchard.

Top: A smudge pot in the orchard.
Bottom: The wind machine.
Scott explained to me that the metal “smudge pots” worked in conjunction with the wind machine to raise the temperature in the orchard on those chilly spring nights, when the apple buds are in danger of being killed by frost. The smudge pots are essentially heaters. However, because heat rises, their effect would be minimal without the use of the wind machine. Powered by a car engine, the wind machine forces the warm air back down over the orchard, keeping the temperature warm enough to prevent the fragile buds from freezing.

Next, Scott showed me some of the newest apple trees, and explained how they’re planted and supported. Many of these trees were trellised – supported with a stake near the trunk, and additional support wires running horizontally down the entire row of trees. As we got closer, I could see why these young trees needed so much support – they were absolutely loaded with apples! As they grow, young trees are pruned to remove any unnecessary branches, so that the tree can direct its energy into producing fruit.

Top: Me among some of the young apple trees.
Bottom: Close-up of a branch loaded with apples.

As we continued through the picturesque orchard, I noticed large wooden crates in some of the rows. Scott explained that as the apples are handpicked, they’re carefully put into these crates, which hold about 18 bushels each. The crates are then transported by forklift over to the processing and storage building, where they’ll be cleaned, sorted, packed, and stored.

Top: Crates of apples ready to be processed.
Bottom: Apples in cold storage.

To begin the cleaning process, the entire crate of apples is gently submerged in a tank of water, causing the apples to float up. This is preferable to dumping them out of the crate, which would likely cause bruising and damage to the apples.

Top: I watch as a crate of apples is submerged in the tank.
Bottom: Floating apples drifting toward the cleaning unit.
Like a bunch of ducks in a ducky derby, the apples then drift toward a conveyor belt that takes them into a cleaning unit, then through a waxer.  Clean and shiny, the apples roll out on the other side onto another conveyor belt, where they’re moved to a sorting line.

Top: Apples on the conveyor belt to be sorted.
Bottom: Apples being weighed and bagged after sorting.

From there, Dawson’s team members sort the apples, removing any that have been damaged at all during cleaning. The remaining apples are sorted into 3 categories, based solely on their appearance. The best looking apples are “trayed” – meaning that they’ll be offered for sale individually. The second best looking apples are bagged for sale by the pound or bushel. The remaining apples – which are just as good in quality, though not in appearance – are sorted for processing into cider.

Dawson’s sends their apples to Hays Cider Press, 14 miles away in Columbiana, OH. I wanted to see that process too, so I made a trip to Hays, which I’ll write about in my next post.

Top: Carolyn shows me some of the pears that Dawson’s grows.
Bottom: Scott in the orchard.

Before I could say my goodbyes to Carolyn and Scott, they insisted that I sit down and enjoy one of Carolyn’s (amazing!) homemade apple dumplings. They never let me leave hungry!

I talked Carolyn into sharing her recipe, so aspiring cooks, read on:

Apple Dumplings
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
2 cups sifted flour
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. nutmeg
¾ cup shortening
¼ cup butter
½ cup milk
6 small apples

To make sauce: Combine sugar, water, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook 5 minutes; add butter. Pare and core apples while sauce is cooking.

Add salt and baking powder to flour; cut in shortening. Add milk all at once. Stir until flour is moistened. Roll to ¼” thick; cut into 6 – 5” squares. Place one cut up apple onto each square. Sprinkle generously with additional sugar and spices and dot with butter. Fold up corners and pinch together. Place 1” apart in greased baking dish. Pour sauce over dumplings and bake at 375F for 35 minutes. Serve hot with ice cream or whipped cream.

For more information about Dawson's Orchards, visit their website at http://www.dawsonsorchards.com/.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I highly reccomend Dawson's Orchard for their quality fruit ! Delicious !