Friday, October 06, 2006

61 reasons to be glad for autumn

Scarcely two minutes away from my house, as the car flies, there is a bend in the road. If it's Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday, turn left at the bend and head down a U-shaped gravel driveway, past the Armstrong's garden patch and farmhouse on the left. Park diagonally on the right side of the drive. Your nose will tell you that you're in the right place the minute you get out of your car. Across the drive is an open-air shed with ten-pound boxes of apples arranged on long tables in the fresh air, and a tasting table out front offering wedge-cut samples of all the apples in season this week, plus a carafe dispensing Dixie-cup samples of what may be the most wonderful, cloudy, deep golden, sweet-tart fresh cider on planet Earth.

Tom's Orchard is a family business that specializes in growing and selling just one crop: apples, and lots of 'em. Tom and Donna Armstrong, a friendly and completely charming couple just past retirement age, have been selling apples from the shed behind their house for many years. They've continued to experiment with different varieties to see what grows well in the local climate; at the moment there are 61 different varieties of apples offered over a single season, which runs from early August to mid-November.

The Pacific Northwest is known for its apple production. If you go to the supermarket -- or even to other farmers' markets in the area -- you're likely to find at least ten different apple varieties available at any given time, though about half will be imports from New Zealand. Tom's, by comparison, has fifteen to twenty varieties on hand, all fresh-picked on the premises -- and unlike other markets, all of Tom's apples, from the prosaic to the exotic, are priced at a flat 85 cents per pound. (Per-pound prices get even more reasonable if you buy apples by the box.)

Sure, you can get your garden-variety Granny Smiths and Red Delicious here (was there ever a more misleading variety name? Red it may be, but Delicious it ain't), but why? The tasting table is your friend; Tom and Donna have helpfully arranged the ripe varieties in a staggered array from sweet to tart, and you can taste them all in season: orange-and-red Spitzenbergs; huge, green, water-cored Kings; pink-and-white fleshed Pink Pearls; Northern Spys (good for pies); full-flavored Gravensteins; and petite, blushing, bright yellow earthen-tart Pristines that only last a week or so in late summer. For my money, though, the best eating apple the Armstrongs grow is the Honeycrisp -- bright green with reddish-orange stripes, firm-fleshed, juicy, sweet but not cloying, and beautifully crisp. If you're lucky enough to find Honeycrisp apples at the supermarket, they will cost you around $3 per pound. Or you can just go to Tom's Orchard and get them for 85 cents.

The Armstrongs are about the nicest people you'd ever hope to meet. Most days, Tom wanders around the place in his denim overalls, putting out new boxes of apples, and Donna operates the cash register and replenishes the tasting table. They're gently outgoing folks, and it's easy to start up a conversation. They're also good neighbors -- one day, when I had no cash and had forgotten my checkbook, Donna graciously let me write an IOU for the apples and quart of cider I'd picked up. "Just bring the money the next time you come by," she smiled, waving away my apologies. (I did, later that day.)

It's not all Eden in this apple orchard. I've had a chance to talk to the Armstrongs more than once, so I know this wonderful little business won't last forever. As mentioned, both Tom and Donna Armstrong are past retirement age. They're healthy, and they still enjoy what they do, but they spend long hours of hard work in growing and picking apples and making cider, and they're starting to feel it. Every season they consider closing down the business for good. None of the Armstrong children have indicated a desire to take over from their parents, so when Tom and Donna decide they've sold their final bushel of apples, that'll be it. Every August I wonder whether the handmade sign pointing the way to Tom's Orchard will appear, and every August so far I've breathed a sigh of relief when it's placed by the roadside. I know that some day, much like the realms of Faerie in the old stories, Tom's Orchard will simply disappear into the thick morning fog of the Willamette Valley, never to be seen again by mortal men.

Selfishly, I hope I won't see that day come any time soon.


tlawwife said...

How great to be able to taste the apples to know which one to buy. I always sit and ponder. Wouldn't it be great if a young couple happened by and decided they would like to carry on that tradition. It is sad to see good places go away.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

Soozcat said...

Getting to taste them first doesn't make it easier, though... when you realize you really enjoy the differences between eight separate varieties. I'm glad their prices are reasonable. :)

Thanks for coming by!

tlc illustration said...

Sounds fabulous. We've always managed to live by a family-run apple orchard - until moving here... That's one black mark for Seattle - one shiny gold star for your locale!