THE wholesome scent of apples stirs our hearts.
Apples are the quintessential American fruit; they speak of a time of homemade pleasures created from the fruit of the backyard tree: cider, apple butter, pies, dumplings.
Until the mid-1940s, nearly all of Southern California’s apples actually came from a spot in our own collective backyard -- the foothill hamlet in eastern San Bernardino County known as Oak Glen. Oak Glen apples were even shipped around the world.
Today, apples from Washington and Oregon fill our supermarkets, but Oak Glen, near Yucaipa, has become a mecca for apple lovers because of the quality and amazing number of varieties of the fruit grown here -- most of which can’t be found at farmers markets. About a dozen ranches raise about 100 varieties, including modern favorites such as Cameo and Pink Lady, a growing number of exotics such as Winter Banana and Sekai Ichi, and Oak Glen oldies such as Rome Beauty, Stayman Winesap, a unique pie apple known as Glen Seedling and the dramatically dark-skinned Arkansas Black.
Rare among specialty fruit-growing areas, Oak Glen never sells through farmers markets, where the few apples you see come from farther away, either the Central Coast or the Sierra foothills. Once in a while, Vons markets will feature some Oak Glen apples. But outside of that, you just have to go up to the Glen and buy directly from the growers.
There’s more to the place than apples. Most orchards also make cider. Because apple varieties ripen at different times, this means the apples being used change throughout the season, so the cider from any orchard has a subtly different flavor from week to week. There’s an art to blending the sweet and the tart, the mellow and the perfumed in a cider.
Nearly all Oak Glen cider is unpasteurized. If the bottle sits around for a couple of weeks, it will ferment, first becoming fizzy, then turning into hard cider. In the end, it will become apple cider vinegar -- with a far richer apple flavor than commercial cider vinegar. “A lot of people buy cider by the case just to let it turn into vinegar,” says Alison Law-Mathisen of Mom’s Country Orchard.
Many places sell apple butter, that nearly forgotten spread that’s like a concentrate of applesauce. Apple jelly, apple syrup, apple sauce, even apple salsa show up on the shelves. And because Oak Glen farmers also raise cherries and raspberries, other preserves are available too.
Oak Glen is 75 miles from downtown L.A., and if you want the feeling of being way out in the country, it’s loaded with that. In drought years (fortunately, this year set records for rainfall), when there aren’t many wild berries in the hills, bears have been known to come down and raid the apples. Bears!
A polished product
THE first orchard you reach when you drive up from Yucaipa is Wood Acres. The apple shed is a tiny cinderblock room below Pat Wood’s antique shop, with just enough space for some crates of apples and an antique apple-polishing machine.
Why a polisher? “Never wash an apple if you’re not going to eat it right away,” Jim Wood says. “The water gets into the blossom end and there’s no way to get it out, and it hastens rotting.”
Although the place is tiny, visitors can’t just rush in and out.
“Years ago,” says Pat Wood, “we established the policy that once you enter the shed, you can’t buy any apples without tasting all the varieties first.”
By that she means the apples that are ripe on a given day, not all 38 varieties the couple raise. They specialize in unusual apples, such as Cinnamon Spice (which actually does have cinnamon flavor at room temperature) and Calville Blanc d’Hiver (the classic French dessert apple). And they have developed their own variety, Paul’s Big Green. “It’s from a sapling that showed up under a Red Delicious,” says Jim Wood. It’s a green-skinned apple that tastes like a Delicious, but with crisper flesh.
Not far from Wood Acres, Parrish Pioneer Ranch is the oldest operation here, dating from the 1860s, when Enoch Parrish planted the first apples in the Glen. It’s a complex of shops that includes a restaurant, an artist’s studio and an antique shop. On weekends it has entertainment -- country music by Yodeling Merle and an Old West shootout by a stunt team (Sundays only).
You find the apples, probably about 10 varieties at a time, in a huge converted barn of a store. Among them might be a very good variety developed at Parrish: Vasquez, a Granny Smith-Rome Beauty cross, as crisp and juicy as Granny Smith but sweeter.
The only other business that stays open all year is Mom’s Country Orchard. During apple season, it sells apples for a couple of smaller orchards as well as its own, and you may see Virginia Winesap, Pearmain and Blacktwig along with more familiar varieties. At other times of year it handles local produce of various kinds, and in spring it even sells apple trees for planting.
Owner Alison Law-Mathisen belongs to the Law family, which has been in Oak Glen for more than 70 years, and she has firm opinions about apples. “Red Delicious is the most overrated apple in the world,” she says, “and Golden Delicious is the most underrated.” A lot of cooks would back her up -- most L.A. French chefs make tarte Tatin with Golden Delicious, because it has the perfect texture when cooked, luscious but not mushy.
Her shop stocks an enormous variety of jams, butters and other preserves, mostly made from Oak Glen fruit. And cider, of course.
“Yes, we sell cider,” Law-Mathisen says, “but we don’t make it ourselves. We sell my little brother’s cider.”
That would be the cider from Law’s Cider Mill, a bit up the road. The mill Sandy Law runs there is just one of five Law businesses, all with the same street address. They include two gift shops and Law’s Coffee Shop.
“Our restaurant was the first one in Oak Glen,” says Sandy’s mother, Theresa Law, “and I made the first pies sold retail here in 1953. For baked apples, the best variety is Rome Beauty.
“For many years, Rome Beauty was the primary apple here; we grew more of that than anything else. But the public today wants variety.”
So if you walk a few steps over to Law’s Apple shed, you should be able to find such seldom-seen apples as Yellow Bellflower, Hoover and Ozark Gold along with one of the Glen’s current favorites, Spartan, as sweet and juicy as its McIntosh ancestor but crisper.
On the other side of Oak Tree Village, a complex of gift shops, restaurants, pony rides and other entertainment, a sign directs you to Snow-Line Orchard. You actually have half a mile of slightly scary mountain road to traverse before you arrive at Snow-Line’s 1898 apple shed.
This is an expansive operation with over 6,000 trees and a large, attractive picnic ground. It has cherry and raspberry u-picks in season (though no apple u-pick), and it makes cherry- and raspberry-flavored ciders as well as straight apple cider.
Snow-Line raises 32 varieties of apples, and you may find as many as 20 of them available at any one time. Owner Mert Hudson’s favorite is Jonagold, because it’s a “good all-around apple” that’s delicious raw or cooked, but he doesn’t expect customers to take his word on flavor. On weekends, there’s a tasting bar, with an employee who uses on old-fashioned hand-cranked apple corer-peeler to keep up with the demand for slices.
“Right now we have Cameo,” says Hudson, naming a pretty yellow apple with red stripes. “It’s one of the newest varieties -- a real sweet apple that’s really crunchy too.”
A few years ago, the Wildlands Conservancy, an organization that preserves natural habitats, bought the old Los Rios Rancho and moved its headquarters there, so Los Rios boasts a nature trail in addition to farm-visit activities. These are the largest orchards in the Glen, planted in 23 varieties.
To run the farm and shops, the Conservancy has hired members of the Riley family, which has come to dominate the eastern side of the Oak Glen loop during the last 25 years. The Rileys introduced the u-pick concept to Oak Glen, and Los Rios has a u-pick orchard across the street, managed by a different branch of the Riley clan.