The 'apple' of my eye

Oct. 10, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

One of my favorite pastimes from my childhood is apple picking.

I fondly remember anticipating the arrival of autumn each year because it meant my family and I would be visiting the apple orchard.

I was surrounded by apples growing up in upstate New York, frequently visiting Kelly's Farm Market to pick apples off the trees, enjoy fresh apple cider and feast on warm glazed doughnuts while sitting next to the hearth.

Located in Hamilton, Kelly's has become a fall tradition for many visitors over the past 50 years, and remained a tradition for my family while my siblings and I were growing up in New York.

As a young girl I loved to watch batches of cider being pressed from apples and observe the farm's honeybee exhibit. Following an afternoon of apple picking out in the orchard, we never missed an opportunity to sit by Kelly's large fireplace and munch on delicious and sticky treats.

During a few of my family's visits we also stopped by the pumpkin patch in search of the perfect carving pumpkins. I always chose a smaller pumpkin with a crooked stem.

After my family relocated to the South, I quickly came to the realization that South Carolina is not known for its apple orchards.

So during my undergraduate studies at Furman University in Greenville, I discovered Sky Top Orchard in Hendersonville, a new place to pick apples and fulfill my childhood pastime.

While western North Carolina is full of pick-your-own orchards, Sky Top offers one of the best apple picking experiences.

The dirt road leading up to the orchard is nearly a mile up Mt. McAlpine with breathtaking views of the scenery along the way. If it has recently rained, sometimes you can spot clouds hanging in the valleys between the mountain ridges.

The area's climate provides warm days and cool summer nights, creating the perfect conditions for high-quality, firm apples with good shelf life just in time for autumn. Sky Top has more than 22 varieties of apple trees covering 60 acres.

But Sky Top is more than just apples.

In addition to the panoramic mountain views and fragrant apple trees, the orchard has a small pond where visitors feed ducks and geese, a barnyard area with friendly farm animals, a bamboo forest and pumpkin patch to explore, tractor-pulled hayrides and acres to roam for the perfect apples while enjoying a picnic lunch.

Sky Top is a working orchard so visitors can expect to see tractors and employees out in the farm, as well as a gift shop offering an assortment of apple-flavored goodies, gift baskets and homemade treats to take home.

And no visit is complete without a cup of hot apple cider and an apple cider doughnut to go along with it.

The first time I visited Sky Top was with my college roommates. We ended up leaving the orchard with bushels of Pink Lady, Golden Delicious and Arkansas Black apples, and even more in our bellies.

Since that first visit I have returned to Sky Top on several occasions, bringing with me family members, good friends and co-workers to experience everything the orchard has to offer.

After I graduated from Furman and moved up to Washington, D.C. for graduate school, one of my initial priorities was to find an apple orchard.

I was successful in my search and discovered Homestead Farm in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Owned by the Allnutt family, the farm was purchased in 1763 and consists of 230 acres. Today, Ben Allnutt, his wife Maureen and their two sons make Homestead Farm their home and continue the family farming tradition.

The farm provides visitors with opportunities to pick their own apples including Fuji, Cameo, Sun Crisp, Braeburn and Enterprise varieties.

In the fall, Homestead Farm also offers fresh assorted vegetables and hayrides out to the pumpkin patches to select the perfect Halloween decoration.

During my visit to Homestead Farm with two classmates, we picked apples from the highest branches, selected pumpkins from the patches and of course enjoyed steaming mugs of apple cider.

A common characteristic with each of my visits to the apple orchard — whether in upstate New York, the mountains of North Carolina or a farm in Maryland — is every time I go apple picking I return with an excessive amount of the little round fruits.

Last year I used the majority of the apples to make pies, muffins and baked apples. I even got creative and whipped up batches of apple pancakes and French toast.

My taste buds were quite satisfied.

I will always enjoy visiting apple orchards. When I purchase a bushel of apples, a cooler of apple cider or a baker's dozen of those doughnuts, I not only bring home the makings for tasty recipes, but also return to those wonderful memories from my childhood.