Did you know that the Pajaro Valley used to be the apple capital of the United States in the early part of the last century? One historical account from 1894 described one apple packer that shipped roughly 6.5 million pounds from the Pajaro train station to the east coast. Without a doubt, the Pajaro Valley has played a significant role the apple industry.
It’s surprising what goes into getting an apple from the tree to the table at the farmers market. Apples are out in the elements, so how do they look so clean at the market? How is it you so seldom see a funky looking apple that is lopsided or gnarled? To get the answers, I interviewed Darlene Mora of Mello-Dy Ranch in Watsonville, and visited with Sam Lathrop and Nick Prevedelli at Prevedelli Farms, located in Corralitos. Both farms sell apples at the Aptos Farmers Market.
My tour began at the barn, a large building containing an enormous Rube Goldberg-looking contraption that turned out to be the washing, sorting and boxing machine. Apples are automatically sorted by size, with culls being selected by hand as they pass by. The apples are separated by size, falling through a grate into a bin below. Culls go to local bakeries and to Martinelli’s for juice. The machine separates the rest by size and sends them down the line to boxes. Another machine weighs and bags apples.
From there we headed out to the trees. Despite their small size, some of the trees are 35 to 40 years old. Apple trees come in dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard sizes. In this area, apple trees can produce commercially viable crops for around 50 years, and it takes about five years from when the tree is planted to reach maturity for productivity.
I noticed what appeared to be twist-ties on some of the branches. Sam explained these were loaded with a pheromone that confuses the male Coddling moth – a big problem for apple farmers. The confusion disrupts the mating cycle, and is just one of the ways farmers can protect their apples without chemical sprays. Sam pointed out the butternut squash vines growing between rows of trees. This cover crop helps keep water in, erosion down, and feeds the soil without the use of fertilizers. After harvest, the vines are tilled under where they help add nitrogen back into the soil naturally.
Harvest time can begin once the County Agriculture Commissioner announces the “release date” which is determined by the sampling of apples to ensure that they meet basic standards for flavor, quality and uniformity. To figure out when to pick, many farmers use a refractometer to measure the sugar in the juice. The other tool used is taste. Sam laughed as he described Nick and himself standing around, biting into apples and deciding when to pick. He said they sometimes wait up to four weeks after the release date to enable the apples to develop more complexity of flavor and sweetness. In an apple that tends to tartness, waiting the extra time for the sugars to develop adds balance to the flavor.
Apple season starts around the third week of July with Gravensteins and McIntoshes. The first sweet apples to hit the markets are Royal Galas. Pippins roll in at the start of October, and on it goes through the end of November. Local apples tend to run out around the end of March. Prevedelli Farm brings about 26 varieties to market, and they are experimenting with new varieties including heirlooms.
Dishing Up Apples
When I use apples in a dish, I look for a variety that best fits my needs. Am I cooking the apple or will it be raw? Do I want to use it as a foil or a complement? For salads, I consider the greens and the dressing. Simple salads are nice with apples with more complex flavors. More complex salads with many flavors, I use apples like croutons to add texture and flavor. For cooking, some apples hold their shape better while others melt. Some will add more liquid to a dish, and others will dramatically add sweetness. Read up, ask your vendors, and most importantly, experiment and taste!
By the way, next July, when you see Fuji apples in July at the grocery store, keep in mind that these are out of cold storage and are not from around here. I noticed a flood of apples out of season and priced well below what our local apples were going for. This sort of tactic can hurt our local growers, and it would be a shame to see a 100+ year old way of life disappears. Besides, you waited a long time for those apples, why not wait just a little longer for the very best – the apples grown locally.
RECIPES: Delicata Squash and Apple Sauté, Onion and Apple Cider Soup with Blue Cheese Croutons, Classic Apple Crisp, Pork Chops with Apples and Cream, Wine Briased Cabbage with Apples and Chestnuts, Apple Butter, Crockpot Apple Butter, Au Gratin Potatoes with Ham and Apples, Apple Pie by Grandma Ople, Dutch Apple Pie, Ultimate Apple Pie