Growing up in Urbana, Illinois, it was unthinkable to let autumn pass without at least one trip to Curtis Orchard in Champaign. I remember it being a fairly modest place when I was a child, but something new got added every year. By the time I moved away, Curtis Orchard had a huge store with all kinds of products, a petting zoo, a haybale maze, pumpkin picking, slushies, and doughnuts. (Oh, how I miss those doughnuts.) Nowadays they’ve added minigolf, face-painting, pony rides… the place is a carnival every day.
But the heart and soul of an orchard will always be its apples.
Manzano Mountain Retreat‘s apple store has no doughnuts, no giant slide, no petting zoo. Well off the beaten path an hour southeast of Albuquerque, this orchard is stripped to that soul: apples and cider. Whenever I stand in that simple store, I think of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” – if there were a Great Apple, surely he would pick this orchard to visit in the fall. It’s that sincere.
The Apple Store is a simple wooden building with a few wagons outside, which you can use if you expect to buy more apples than you can easily carry. (I always do.) Inside, it’s just as simple. Tables and small risers hold bushel baskets and prepacked bags of a wide variety of apples – the orchard grows dozens of varieties, and there are usually at least 10 available. Most of the varieties have small or damaged ones available as samples. And there are tiny cups of the orchard’s tasty cider to try, too.
|Mom samples some cider.|
Since it’s difficult to resist trying just about every type, I highly recommend visiting with at least one other person to share your samples with. Even so, I always leave the Apple Store feeling stuffed to the gills with apples. I suppose it would make sense to take a bite and throw out the rest of the sample, but how can you do that when they’re all so tasty?
And they are delicious. It’s a revelation to taste Apple Mountain Retreat’s Red Delicious – sweet and full of complex apple flavor, unlike the apple facsimiles served in school cafeterias nationwide. The Granny Smiths are eye-opening too, wonderfully different from the leather-skinned, highly shippable ones in the grocery store. These are crisp and refreshing, like Granny Smiths used to be.
|Our apples in the front, Mom’s in back|
But of course, what I really want is something different, unusual, interesting. Apple Mountain Retreat has that covered too: hard-to-find varieties like Arkansas Black, crosses like Maxspur and Jonamac, old-fashioned heirlooms like Cox’s Orange Pippin (which we always buy a few of in homage to one of little-boy Arne’s favorite books, Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl).
Inevitably, we buy too many apples. This year we picked up a 10-pound bag of a favorite we discovered here, Suncrisp, and another of Jonee – a Jonathan cross that caught our attention this season. The Braeburns (another apple that tastes worlds better here than its grocery-store equivalent; these are some of the best apples I’ve ever tasted) were almost sold out, with no big bags left, so I carefully selected another 5 pounds or so of those from a bushel of seconds. Add those Pippins, some Idareds for cooking, and two gallons of cider, and, well, that’s more apples than two people can eat. But we’ll enjoy trying. I’ve already made one big batch of applesauce, and I hope to make apple butter this week.
There is one downside to Apple Mountain Camp. No, it’s not the drive; that’s part of the appeal. The drive is gorgeous, even more so if you stop at the Quarai or Abo ruins and marvel at the crumbling orange adobe walls against the glorious blue autumn sky. Make a lovely day of it! The problem is the schedule.
Manzano Mountain Retreat’s Apple Store is only open for a few weekends out of the year. (The Retreat also has facilities for camps, reunions, business retreats, and the like, which are open year-round.) Some years, when frost or fire has affected the crop, it never opens at all. This year opening day was September 27 and the last day was October 14. So start checking their website in early September and be diligent! It’s worth it.