STOW, MASS. — Apple picking seems to rouse the spirits of autumn romantics. It's an opportunity to bring in a harvest and prepare for the frigid months when warm, baked treats are a necessity.
Americans are apple gluttons, devouring about 50 pounds a year each and drinking countless jugs of its nectar. The first months of fall, when most US orchards harvest their crop, are understandably a boom time for pick-your-own operations.
Shelburne Farms in Stow, Mass., has a steady stream of customers. Special features include a Norman Rockwell-esque white barn where customers are tempted with an array of gooey treats - caramel apples, applesauce, apple squares, syrup, and blocks of fudge.
But most of the hundreds of weekend visitors come to replenish their apple stock. "People are always coming who say they picked apples here with their grandparents," says Liz Painter, co-owner of Shelburne with her husband, Ted. "These are families of apple lovers."
The farm grows and sells 23 apple varieties; the most popular are Cortland, Empire, McIntosh, Spencer, Golden Delicious, and Red Delicious. But this autumn, customers are ravenous for Macouns.
The Macouns are ripe for only a short time - and savvy apple pickers mark their calendars.
Sherrill Papalia and her young daughter, Lauren, of Marlborough, Mass., came to Shelburne in September and happily left with a bushel of McIntoshes, but counted the days until the Macouns would be ripe.
"They're the best eating apples because they've got a little bite to 'em," says Ms. Papalia, "and they taste great."
Geoff McEnany of Boston, another apple lover, is equally jubilant.
"In California this time of year, I used to pick persimmons and guava," he says. "So the apples are a nice change. And there's a sense of excitement today because the Macouns are ready, and they're gone so fast."
Before Mr. McEnany goes out into the field, Jean Lynch, an apple guru and Shelburne volunteer, offers advice: "Pick a medium or small one. Most people want the biggest ones, but they're full of water and probably have lost most of their flavor."
Most pick-your-own operations have converted to dwarf trees, which bear fruit reachable by children. Still, there is a wide variation in the shape and taste of the apples themselves.
The Cortland is pink and bulbous. Sitting in the tree, it resembles a gob of Play-Doh in a child's hand. Others, like the McIntosh, are regal - pert and perfectly red like a blushed, dimpled cheek.
Nationally, agriculturists expect an apple crop of about 254.2 million 42-pound cartons, 23 million below the bumper crop of 1998. Washington State, New York, and Michigan lead the United States in apple production.
The effects of the autumn harvest are most felt in the kitchen. Ms. Lynch has been baking with apples all her adult life. (See two of her favorite recipes, above right.)
Many of her recipes are older dishes that cooks today no longer make. They include homemade apple jelly, which Lynch uses as a base for other jellies, like mint or rosemary.
She recommends apple butter as a good substitute for the real stuff on muffins and pumpkin bread.
Mark Rosenstein, author of the cookbook "In Praise of Apples," uses apples in some unlikely places. He suggests, for example, mixing apple juice with chicken stock as a base for soup.
It's important, though, to pick the right apple for a specific recipe. He offers one general rule of thumb: "The firmer the apple, the sweeter it will be. An example of a sweet cooking apple is Golden Delicious."
If you're not sure an apple will hold up during cooking, Mr. Rosenstein suggests a simple tests: "[Wrap] a few apple slices in aluminum foil and bake them for 20 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees F. Then open the package and see what has happened. If the apple has fallen apart, don't use it."
Whether you cook with apples or simply eat them fresh, Rosenstein says, storage is more important than people think. "People will buy apples and they'll sit out on their counter," he says. "But they'll last a whole lot longer if they are kept in the refrigerator."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society