Saturday morning, just before our supper party by the river, we packed a picnic basket, an old patchwork quilt and the kid in the car and set out on the long dirt road that connects our high alpine valley to Colorado’s western slope.
It’s a long drive, but when the wildflowers bloom in July and again when the Aspens shed their orange-gold leaves in September and October, it’s spectacular. The serpentine pass winds through the West Elk Mountains for thirty unpaved, gritty miles before plunging into the scant and weather-worn coal mining town of Somerset and, eventually, the mountains yield to the valley floor and the orchards, farms and artisanal wineries begin to dot the highway as you pass closer and closer to the epicenter of Colorado’s masterful sustainable foods movement: Paonia and Hotchkiss.
That’s a long drive for eager children waiting with all the patience five-year-olds can muster for the promise of U-pick-it apples. But it’s worth the wait, and while we drove farther beyond the Paonia’s orchards to visit our favorite cidery in Cedaredge, a western Colorado town known for its annual Apple Fest.
Tucked away on the edges of a residential neighborhood sits Blossomwood Cidery, one of the few artisanal, small-scale producers of true hard cider. In true farm-to-table style, all their cider is produced from apples grown from their own orchards, pressed on-site and traditionally brewed in a cellar beneath the tasting room.
So we entered the orchard, awaiting fresh apples and eager to spread our blanket wide and share a autumn picnic of whole grain sourdough bread, warm root vegetable soup and chicken salad (see the recipe), only to find that my D90 had failed utterly with repeated lens errors. Fortunately, the folks at Blossomwood were gracious enough to lend me a camera to shoot the photos you see in this post. That settled, we followed our hosts into the orchard where they showed us the new trees, the old trees, the cider apples (bitter, soapy and rich in tannins) and, eventually, we wrapped the kid in apple-picking gear, found a ladder and started picking. Golden Delicious, Galas and the lovely Wickson Crab with its sweet flesh and gingery undertones.
And as we delved deeper in the orchard, away from the sounds of the street traffic, we lost ourselves in the old rite of apple picking – that pleasure that’s been forfeited in favor of perfectly round, long-traveled waxed apples in the produce section of your local supermarket. In a way, this simple rite can teach our children so much more. It’s not about apples; rather, it’s about sharing in your children’s real food education – teaching them the pleasure of hard work beneath the heat of the day, of stepping over brambles and of chasing pigs and finding that one perfect apple, free from worms and still warm from the sun.
When the work is done, arms exhausted from reaching and picking, it’s time to settle in and enjoy the fruits of labor – resting on an old patchwork quilt spread wide, slurping a wholesome root vegetable soup from thermoses and slathering freshly made chicken salad on slices of whole grain bread before sinking your teeth into the sweet flesh of just picked heirloom apples.
Beyond that afternoon, you drive home tired, exhausted and ready for rest, but you do it knowing your children have reveled in the pleasure of a fast-disappearing connection to their food heritage.
tips for apple-picking and outdoor food adventure for children
- Pack a good picnic by skipping chips, cookies, crackers and prepackaged snacks in favor of simple dishes like egg, tuna or chicken salad (see the recipe from our trip), whole grain bread, sweet cider for the children and hard cider or wine for the grownups.
- Call orchards and farms ahead of time. Make sure that the orchard you have in mind is brimming with fruit. Who knows, perhaps a late spring frost damaged the crop or maybe your fellow U-pick-it fanatics already stripped the trees of fruit.
- Choose organic or biodynamic orchards. Some of the very worst and most damaging pesticides are used on fruit crops, so choose an orchard that practices sustainable, biodynamic or organic standards in their farming.
- Wear hats and long-sleeves when possible. Weather can go bad quickly. Orchards can be full of biting insects. Always bring along protective clothing. Remember, if the weather’s nice and the sky slightly overcast, you don’t have to use it.
- Don’t limit yourselves to orchards. Orchards with their peaches, apples, plums and other favorites are an obvious pick, but consider taking your children mushroom hunting (with an expert and good guidebook) or to visit a vegetable farm as well.
- Be prepared for melt-downs and the occasional nature-phobic outburst.You may see hogs and chickens, cows and goats on your adventure, but don’t expect your child to warm up immediately to farm animals – especially if they’re unaccustomed to livestock. Be ready to coach your child through any fear he or she may experience, but neither should you feed into it.
- Send a thank you note. Thank your grower for the allowing you to come on to his or her farm, ranch or orchard, these old-fashioned pleasantries have been lost to impersonal emails, so bring it back and teach your child good manners at the same time.
- 2 cup cooked chicken
- 1 fresh apple (cored and chopped)
- 3 ribs celery (chopped)
- 2 tbsp minced red onion
- 1 cup halved black table grapes
- 1 cup mayonnaise (preferably homemade)
- dash unrefined sea salt (buy here)
- freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
- Toss cooked chicken, chopped apple, celery, onion and halved grapes into a large mixing bowl and give them a good stir.
- Fold in one cup homemade mayonnaise, dash salt and a sprinkling of freshly ground pepper and continue folding until all the ingredients are well-coated by the mayonnaise.
- Serve immediately or pack it into a cooler and hit the road.