When I think of fall, spectacular scenery, musical goose migration, finding the perfect decorative pumpkin, colorful hikes, and of course, apples, spring to mind. Have you noticed the nights are getting cooler? Some of them are dropping into the 40s. This makes the apple growers smile. I learned it takes the cooler nights for the apples to develop their desired red color. That’s not all I learned during a recent visit to Gunnison’s Orchards, Bakery and Gift Shop. I’ve been surrounded by first class Champlain Valley apples all my life during the autumn months, but I really didn’t know some of what went on behind the scene, so that we could enjoy this tasty treat of autumn. I stopped by this historic orchard during the height of harvest activity. The recent cooler nights had brought the apples to color and things were hopping.
Apples in the Genes
The Gunnison family first came to the area in the early 1800s when military battles in this valley had ended, and this highly coveted piece of geography was being settled and developed. Right after the turn of the century, a grandson of the original Gunnison settler, initially planted 400 apple trees. They flourished, and so began the Gunnison Orchard, one of the oldest, and most highly esteemed, in New York State. Today the farm boasts 165 acres of apples and has grown into a sophisticated production that incorporates state of the art technology to produce some of the finest quality apples in the country.
The farm is currently hands-on operated by Will Gunnison, one of the (how many “greats?”) grandsons of the original settler, with Dad (Hugh) and Mom (Kay) still pitching in during the busy season. Will, and his wife, Tieah, have expanded the entire operation to now include the Farmhouse Bakery and Gift Shop adjacent to the immense packing and cold storage warehouse. That which you see from passing by on Route 9N & 22 heading north out of the hamlet of Crown Point, is only a fraction of the total operation and is quietly deceiving of all the activity going on inside.
On the day of my visit I got a peak at production happenings inside. It is a most impressive process from the time the apples are picked off the tree, to the shiny, stickered individual product we find stocking shelves in the market. Simply put: from the tree the apples go into a crate. Each crate waits its turn for processing in the packing house in cold storage, ideally between 34 and 38 degrees. Then each crate of apples heads for a bath. The bathing mechanism also begins the sorting for size. I learned that apples are sized in numbers, but unlike shrimp, it’s not a count per pound. I’m not quite sure of the number significance, but I did learn that No. 72s are those big guys; the ones that look like they would fill a whole pie by themselves.
As the apples leave the “bathtub,” the machine appears to automatically toss out the smaller ones into crates headed for cider production. The apples gently roll along metal roller “highways,” headed for a waxing that makes them sparkle and shine, then the stickers are applied and each apple heads on for intense visual inspection by orchard production staff.
There, more sizing, sorting and blemish inspection, which might send an apple without the perfect skin, off into the cider crate also. Gunnison Orchard cider is produced off-site in a specially certified plant that turns their apples into cider, and pasteurizes and bottles it under their own label. It’s delicious, to say the least. And, to warm you up on a cool evening, it goes great with tequila in an apple margarita; rim the glass with cinnamon sugar, not salt, and garnish with a slice of apple - of course.
The final step in the packing house is to gently place each apple into padded, divided, layered, and labeled boxes. Throughout all this process, meticulous records are kept. From the labels on each packed box, not only can one determine the type and size of the apple, but the date it was picked and the tree it was picked from! Now that is some record-keeping.
Not all apples are headed off for shipment however. The Bakery and Gift Shop has its own climate-controlled storage area for retail shoppers. Apples wait for restocking those shelves and future sales in special cold storage rooms where even oxygen and CO2 levels are controlled and maintained - a sophisticated process indeed. These storage rooms are sealed concrete vault-like structures with elaborate exterior equipment and gauges reading the temperatures and air quality inside.
Family Fall Fun
With apple ripening and picking now underway, it won’t be long before the “pick your own” opportunity is open to the public. I find there’s an increase in eating satisfaction when you’ve gathered the apples yourself directly from the tree. Gunnison’s Orchard has a convenient section of its orchard set aside to do just that. It could be open any time now, be sure to call ahead for confirmation (518-597-9222) since weather can impact safety conditions which may affect picking. They also have pick-your-own fall raspberries available.
Gunnison’s Orchard raises 17 different varieties of apples which allows for quite an assortment of flavor distinctions. Every year I search for a new apple recipe, or try to alter an old favorite by using a different variety of apple. This year I am super lucky since Gunnison’s has a new, rare variety available (or did at the time of this writing) called the SweeTango.
Creative expert apple breeders at the University of Minnesota came up with this new variety, which is a cross between the modernly popular varieties of Honey Crisp and Zestar. It was first introduced in 2009. Wanting this new variety to maintain the highest of quality and standards, a small cooperative of growers was formed. However, only the best, conscientious apple growers were selected to be a part of the cooperative. We can be proud that a Lake Champlain Region apple grower was chosen: Gunnison’s Orchards!
I’d never heard of the SweeTango, and I have to say after tasting one, I’ve never tasted an apple quite like it. In your hand, it felt like the heft of a regular apple. In your mouth; oh my! To me, it felt light, almost delicate, but incredibly juicy. There was the considerable crunch I crave, biting in. The flavor is mellow-sweet, definitely apple-like with a hint of citrus. Absolutely incredible! I am anxious to try it in salsa and salads.
Plan a visit to the beautiful Adirondack Coast this autumn! While you're here, make sure to spend an afternoon at Gunnison’s Orchard and save room in the car to take home some apples and raspberries that you picked yourself. Sip some cider while munching a 'fresh from the oven' cider donut from their bakery for a true taste of Lake Champlain's fabulous fall season.
This week our bloggers disclose some of their favorite local ADK activities.