Visiting a friend for dinner the other evening, appetizers were set out: one block of hard white cheddar cheese, crackers, and a perfect honey crisp apple, in wedges. It was the ideal blend of flavors: salt, tangy and sweet.
Apples are plentiful on Beaver Island this time of year. The trees from the old orchards along Sloptown Road tip their harvest into the road, and huge flocks of wild turkeys run along the edges to dine on the ripe fruit. Anyone with the time and inclination to visit old farmsteads can come away with bushel baskets full of good apples.
Aunt Katie used to be the guide, on trips around the island in apple-picking season. She would tell us how to pull the pickup truck in just right, so as not to damage branches, but close enough so that the back end – and even the roof of the cab – could be used to pick from. She was always willing to be the first “taster” to make sure the fruit was worth our time. If branches need to be cut away with the hand saw, she would tell us which ones, to let the light through, prevent branches rubbing together, and result in healthier trees.
Aunt Katie knew where there were two Golden Delicious Apple trees; she even remembered the day they were planted. She knew which were fall apples, that had to be picked early, before the cold weather spoiled them, and which were the winter apples, that were too hard and bitter to bite into until after a good frost. She recognized trees that the wind had pruned. Those were more likely to yield larger and cleaner fruit. She knew the locations of the best old orchards, and where the Wolf Rivers could be found.
The Wolf River is a large, juicy, sweet-tart apple with a red skin tinged with yellow-green. It is a cultivar first grown near the Wolf River in Wisconsin, and was brought to Beaver Island not long after that, for orchards here. It is firm enough to be generally worm-free. It holds up to baking, in a pie or apple crisp; it has good flavor for cider or apple sauce; it is the perfect flavor and texture for just eating fresh.
My cousin, Bob, picked me up after work many years ago, and took me apple picking. Though Aunt Katie had not yet retired to the island, we went to the best places we could remember, from other outings with her. Bob swung like a monkey out into the trees, to get the best apples. He kept me gasping with laughter the whole time. We came home with a good collection of the biggest, most beautiful Wolf River apples I’ve ever seen.
Bob got supplies from the grocery store while I picked up my daughters from school. We met back at the farmhouse. Every apple had to be washed and dried. Stems were removed and sticks were pushed through the core of each one. Caramel was slowly melted in a heavy pan on the stove top. Pecans were lightly toasted in the oven, then roughly chopped. My daughters worked right along with us at every task, including the eventual dipping of the apples in caramel, and rolling them in toasted pecans.
It was a day of superlatives: one of the happiest experiences of my life, culminating in the very best caramel apples ever made!