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Falling for Apples During the Annual Harvest in Minnesota : It’s a true slice of Americana as festivals and fairs celebrate the fruit in small towns along the Mississippi River.

“Subtle bouquet, full-bodied, rich in color, truly noble and with a very pleasing aftertaste” are words one would expect to hear from a dedicated oenophile as he or she slowly savored the virtues of a fine bottle of wine. But apples?

Here every fall, along the Upper Mississippi in southeast Minnesota, from the town of Red Wing south to La Crescent, apples take on all the importance of a grape harvest in Bordeaux, Tuscany or the Rhine-Moselle valleys. There are apple festivals, apple queens, fairs and other activities sponsored by the likes of Apple Country Antiques, Apple Village Liquors, Apple Blossom Laundromat and other civic-minded types.

Fall weather and spirits hereabouts are the kind many Americans associate with Thanksgiving in our grade-school history books: crisp air with a tinge of wood smoke, a light dusting of snow one day and sparkling sunshine the next, thankfulness for a bountiful harvest mingled with the reality of a long winter ahead. It’s a great time to be here, a real “Over the hill to Grandmother’s house” feeling of nostalgia.

Gathering the apples takes on an interesting pattern. First come the local pickers, always doing their job proudly by hand. Then the “gleaners” move in to gather the residue for church and charity sales. Last come the deer, and the woods are full of them, to feast on the leavings.

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As for the tastings at stands and orchards, we had a go at a dozen different types of apples, of the 27 varieties grown throughout the season. Given a sharp knife and cutting board, it didn’t take long for us to decide that our favorite was the Haralson, a luscious, tart-sweet winner that is only sold to stores in Minnesota and surrounding states yet may be shipped to individuals nationwide.

Apart from all the hoopla about apples, a fall visit to the Bluff Country of the Mississippi Valley is made even more satisfying by its deserved reputation for being one of the most beautiful river drives in the United States.

Mark Twain, no stranger to the Mississippi, once wrote: “This amazing region, bristling with great towns . . . majestic bluffs charm one with the grace and variety of their forms. And then you have the shining river, white steamboats vanishing around remote points.”

To Twain’s dead-on description, we might add that a drive from Minneapolis-St. Paul down the Mississippi 134 miles to La Crescent is a delightful dose of Americana, with every little town (Hastings, Red Wing, Lake City, Winona, La Crescent, plus a short jaunt inland to the historic and charming Lanesboro) another nostalgic example of 19th-Century Main Street America.

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How long/how much? At least two days will probably do it for the valley, but another will be very rewarding for anyone who likes to meander. Lodging and dining costs seem almost on hold around here, compared to big-city prices.

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Getting settled in: Hastings’ Rosewood Inn, an 1880 Queen Anne mansion listed in the National Register of Historic Sites, has eight B&B; rooms, six with wood-burning fireplaces, plus old-fashioned claw-foot tubs in baths and sheet-size towels. The owners take great pride in the fact that 10% of their guests are locals just looking for an evening in the relaxed ambience of Rosewood. Sumptuous breakfasts may include ample servings of fresh fruit, a wonderful wild-rice omelet and date muffins.

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The venerable St. James Hotel in Red Wing dates to the 1870s. Downstairs there’s a cozy library with stained-glass windows, fireplace and lots of books to peruse until bedtime. Bedrooms are absolutely huge, with antiques, marble-top chests, handmade quilts and some rooms with great views of the river.

Winona’s Holiday Inn has 112 spacious bedrooms, the town’s largest indoor pool, recreation center and whirlpool. There’s a full-service restaurant decorated with drawings of historic Winona.

Reservations are almost always necessary for a room at Mrs. B’s Lanesboro Inn and Restaurant, another late-19th-Century home on the little town’s main street. There are only 10 bedrooms, each decorated differently and two with fireplaces; all are very cozy. The high-ceilinged parlor has a small library, baby grand and a fireplace where one can have late-afternoon tea or a sherry. Mrs. B’s offers a five-course set menu at dinner for $19, a bountiful spread for guests and non-guests that is famous in this corner of Minnesota.

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Regional food and drink: Minnesota’s marvelous and plentiful wild rice is perfect company for the state’s abundance of wild duck, geese, pheasant, venison, walleyed and northern pike. Since it’s also a dairy state, there’s a variety of cheeses, including an Amish-made blue that we find delectable.

But the firm fact is that Minnesotans themselves say their most famous culinary contribution is the “hot dish” that usually starts with a can of cream-of-mushroom soup and from there takes on the character of just about anything in the kitchen cupboard or fridge. We spotted more than a dozen “favorite hot dish” recipes in a regional cookbook.

The Minnesota Winegrowers Cooperative is coming up with some very interesting bottles, including the colorfully named Prairie Smoke and Columbine dry whites, St. Croix red and Yellow Moccasin, a fruity and fragrant white.

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Good local dining: Red Wing’s St. James Hotel dining room (406 Main St.) is actually a series of intimate rooms with their original limestone walls, fireplaces, lots of fresh flowers and a distinct aura of bygone days. For starters, try the quail St. James, boned and stuffed with ground chicken, oven-roasted and served with a citrus cream sauce ($6.95). The walleye pike baked in lemon butter and white wine, then served with a sour cream and green onion sauce, is $18.50; a Minnesota ribeye steak with a green peppercorn sauce or sauteed mushrooms can be had for the same price.

The Mississippi broadens into Lake Pepin at Lake City, and Waterman’s Restaurant (on the lake) has huge picture windows overlooking the water, boats and barges. Waterman’s is a very pretty place with lots of greenery about and a fairly extensive menu of regional dishes. Try the wild rice sausage sauteed with green peppers and a marinara sauce and served over linguine--$6.50 with soup or salad.

Waterman’s pork chop is a boneless chop de-glazed with brandy and finished in a sauce of fresh apples and cider, $11.95 with vegetable and wild rice. There’s an excellent selection of California wines here at modest prices, plus a few good French.

Run by three generations of the Polish Kowalewski family since 1931, the Hot Fish Shop (South Mankato Avenue, Winona) serves very little of their homeland’s food and sticks pretty much to fresh fish and other seafood. We took their advice and went for the dual-entree dinner special of walleyed pike and Atlantic torsk, a firm white fish often called “the poor man’s lobster,” both served with soup of the day, choice of potato, vegetable and tossed salad for $14.95. The dining area is cavernous and always crowded; there’s a fresh-fish market in the parking lot.

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On your own: Hastings, just 25 miles south of St. Paul, was given the very romantic-sounding name by Sioux-Dakota Indians of O-wo-bop-te, which actually means “the place we dig turnips,” an Indian wintertime staple. The Mississippi, Vermillion and St. Croix rivers skirt this very historic town, with 62 properties listed in the National Register of Historic Sites. There’s a bald eagle and hawk migration through Hastings every fall, and this, plus the blaze of foliage and apple harvest, make it a worthwhile stop.

The port town of Red Wing (50 miles south of St. Paul) was named for a Dakota chieftain and offers plenty of diversions for the visitor. In addition to its turn-of-the-century Sheldon Theater, a little gem of gilt and red velvet, one may visit the legendary Red Wing Stoneware Co. and purchase classic pieces made there since 1877.

Equally famous and open for visits is the Red Wing Shoe Co., its sturdy shoes long a favorite of farmers, construction workers and hunters. As a manager of the St. James Hotel said, “You know their shoes cost a lot of money, but it’s a damn good shoe.” Red Wing is also probably the best town on the river for shopping, with the Pottery Place Outlet Center housing 52 factory outlets and shops.

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The stretch of river between Red Wing and Winona is particularly lovely. Along the way one passes through Lake City (15 miles southeast of Red Wing), where the sport of water skiing was introduced in 1922. Plan a stop here at Pepin Heights Orchards for a scrumptious selection of homemade apple pies, fritters, cakes, cider and just about anything else made from apples.

At Winona (110 miles southeast of St. Paul), don’t miss a chance to cruise the Mississippi on the Jollie Ollie, an authentic little paddle wheeler ($9.95). Winona is also known for the variety of its indigenous and migratory birds: eagles, egrets, ospreys, peregrine falcons and the magnificent tundra swans that stop here on their way from the Arctic to their winter home in the Carolinas.

La Crescent and Lanesboro are both fetching little towns, the latter noted for its Root River bike trail that draws riders from throughout the country for the 35-mile outing along an old railroad bed. Another tradition in Lanesboro is a stop at Das Wurst Haus for German-style bratwurst, glorious mustard, sauerkraut and homemade root beer. With a little coaxing, the owner, his wife and a tuba virtuoso will serenade guests with schmaltzy polkas on their accordion, piano and horn.

From now through Thanksgiving, valley towns are alive with craft festivals, quilting bees, swan watches, polka fests, antique shows and other civic doings.

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GUIDEBOOK

Eyeing Apples in Minnesota

Getting there: From Los Angeles, fly Northwest, Delta, American, United, Continental or TWA to Minneapolis-St. Paul. An advance-purchase, round-trip ticket will cost $345. A rental car is best for doing the Bluff Country.

Where to stay: Rosewood Inn (620 Ramsey St., Hastings, Minn. 55033, telephone 612-437-3297; $75-$150 double B&B;); St. James Hotel (406 Main St., Red Wing, Minn. 55066, tel. 800-252-1875; $75-$145 double); Holiday Inn (956 Mankato St., Winona, Minn. 55987, tel. 800-HOLIDAY; $48-$62 double B&B;); Mrs. B’s Lanesboro Inn (Main Street, Lanesboro, Minn. 55949, tel. 507-467-2154; $55-$65 double B&B;, weekdays, $85-$95 weekends).

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For more information: Call the Minnesota Office of Tourism toll-free at (800) 657-3700, or write (100 Metro Square, 121 7th Place East, St. Paul, Minn. 55101-2112) for a 136-page travel magazine on southern Minnesota, plus hotel and restaurant guides, B&B; brochure, a sports recreation brochure and map of Minnesota.


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