Who, I’d like to know, was the genius who came up with the apple as the agent for casting Adam and Eve out of Paradise? Probably some grim little Dark Ages gnome who’d never snapped his incisors into the gloriously juicy flesh of a freshly picked Winesap or Arkansas Black. Some humorless drone who had never thrust his face into a crate of cold Red Delicious beauties and inhaled until he nearly swooned from pure fragrance overload.
God, known for His sense of good taste, would not cast the apple as the supporting heavy in Genesis. The original text probably featured the Brussels sprout, and somewhere along the line someone who actually liked Brussels sprouts made the ol’ switcheroo.
Well, fine. Let the detractors have their moment. And let them stay the hell out of Oak Glen. That way, there’ll be more of that tiny village’s supremely wonderful crop for the rest of us.
Oak Glen, in the lower regions of the San Bernardino Mountains, just six miles up the hill from Yucaipa, becomes at this time each year a destination for pilgrims from throughout Southern California, seekers of truth, beauty and the fruit that satisfies all five senses. Even in the citrus-heavy Southland, there still exists a core of fanatics who pound their way up the hill to the glen every fall in search of the apple of their dreams.
This, too, was my quest. On a free afternoon and an empty stomach, I headed to the glen, aiming to sample enough apple segments to supply high fiber to Belgium for a year. I would not return until I had ferreted out the ultimate expression of appleness.
Let me say, first, what an Oak Glen apple is not: It is not, absolutely not, a grocery store apple. Buy a Red Delicious at your local MegaMart and you may be getting something that looks like the best of nature’s bounty--deep, deep red and shiny as the Simonize job on a fire truck--but tastes and chews like wet cornmeal. That apple is waxed and was likely picked last year and stored in huge nitrogen-infused refrigerators.
At least that’s the gospel according to Jim Wood, the proprietor of Wood Acres, an orchard at the very bottom of the glen. I found Wood in his fruit shed, about a hundred yards off the road and into the pines, cheerily slicing up apple samples for a young couple. Wood looks exactly the way you’d expect an apple grower to look: lean, weathered, crinkly smile, friendly hound-dog eyes, rugged hands, overalls. He’s Mr. Green Jeans.
He carved off a piece of a huge Red Delicious and handed it to me. It was sweet yet tart, crisp, juicy, dense, snappy. It was, I thought, the best apple I had ever tasted. Then he sliced off a hunk of a big, bright green apple he called a Paul’s Big Green, explaining that it was a hybrid originally grown by his neighbor Paul. It was even better.
Warming to his task, he fetched out a rather unlovely specimen--with a kind of mottled yellow and brown skin--and explained that it was an “ancient apple,” a very old English variety called Pink Pearl that he had recently begun to cultivate in Oak Glen. Where was the pink, I wanted to know? His paring knife made two quick cuts and revealed an incredibly juicy interior, mostly white but dappled with patches of pink. The taste was almost overwhelming, and I demanded a boxcar full of them at once. But Wood crushed me.
Sorry, he said, he’d already sold out of them, in less than two weeks. The one I was eating was a “drop” with a bruise on one side and therefore unsalable. I would have to wait an entire year for that taste again.
But, he said, why not come back and pick up some Paul’s Big Greens when they came in in a couple of weeks? Or how about a really historic apple, the Calville Blanc d’Hiver? Introduced to the United States by no less an apple lover than Thomas Jefferson, who brought seedlings from France to Monticello (the trees are still there). Tender, sweet, aromatic and containing more Vitamin C than an orange, said Wood. They’d be in soon, too.
I vowed to return and make Wood rich. But for the time being, there were other apples in the glen, and I was determined to eat a slice of every one of them. I told Wood goodby, giving the single Pink Pearl a last long look, and set off up the hill.
My next two stops appeared a bit commercial, larger operations that seemed to deal more in the trappings of appledom--corers, parers, apple butter, cookbooks, apple syrup--than the parent fruit itself. Then came the lyrically named Snow Line orchard.
Snow Line may be the quintessential apple operation. Sheltered about a quarter-mile off the road in a big red-painted corrugated shed in a hollow that looks like nothing so much as a moonshiner’s lair (there is a separate building containing a cider press), it perfumes the entire clearing with a cool, crisp lightweight fragrance. Inside, at a wooden table, stood a man peeling and coring eight varieties of apples, including the exotic Japanese Mutsu. I wanted to pull up a chair and stay approximately forever, just snacking and inhaling.
But there were more orchards, more apples, more Bella Vistas, more McIntoshes, more Starking Delicious, more Spartans, more Gravensteins.
By the time I made my last stop at Wilshire’s, at the very top of the glen--a perfect, open wooden shed--I was full, and sloshing with cider samples. A broadly smiling JoAnne Wilshire (they’re all like that up there) did the apple carving, and on the third try, I suddenly struck gold: the lovely Lura Red. A hybrid, it was astringent yet sweet, almost perfectly crunchy, strikingly multihued in red and green and nearly (but not quite) as stupendous as Wood’s Pink Pearl. I snatched up a big bag of them and--what the heck--an apple cookbook as well and thanked JoAnne profusely for making my day. She gave me another Lura Red to munch on the drive down the hill.
One trip to the glen, naturally, is not enough. Driving home, with the taste of a perfect, non-waxed, freshly picked, ruddy-skinned Lura Red still in my mouth, I reckoned 10 wouldn’t be enough. The magnificent Arkansas Blacks would be arriving around mid-October, and Wood, I was sure, was bound to come up with still another variety before long.
That’s my idea of Paradise.
To get to Oak Glen: Take either the Orange or the Riverside Freeway to the San Bernardino Freeway east to the Yucaipa off ramp, and follow signs (the route is well marked) to the glen.