Western Colorado is known for its local produce found at farmers markets all summer, but as fall approaches, Colorado's largest fruit crop is just taking off.
"This is one of the biggest years for apples we've had in a long time," said Jeff Schwartz owner of Delicious Orchards, an organic orchard, market and cafe in Paonia. Schwarz makes Big B's organic juice, which is distributed throughout the southwest, and has perfected a prolific fruit crop of cherries, peaches, apricots, apples, plums and pears sold on site, in their cafe and to niche markets.
"Apples might not be as sexy as peaches, but there are more varieties, they last longer, and are more useful - there's a huge processing market for apples," said Schwartz.
Right now you can visit Delicious Orchards, sling a basket over your shoulder and wander through the rows of apple and plum trees picking your own fruit. Honey crisp, MacIntosh, Jonagolds and Elephant Heart Plums are "picking" right now.
Colorado used to be one of the biggest fruit growing regions in the U.S., but with increased global competition, the apple crop in Colorado shrank and farms started planting more cherries and grapes. In the late 1980s, Washington State began marketing the shiny Red Delicious apple that looked nice on a table but, said Schwartz, "was starchy with a cardboard like texture." The honey crisp variety came along about 10 years ago out of Minnesota and "started an apple revolution with more people devouring different apple varieties," Schwartz said.
Cooking with apples
Apples, that most versatile of fruits, are showing up on menus at your local restaurants right now.
"It's that sense of terroir and seasonality - when the leaves and weather begin to turn, it just feels right to cook with apples," said Mark Fischer, owner and chef of Six89 in Carbondale, Phat Thai in Carbondale/Denver and his most recent culinary adventure, The Pullman in Glenwood Springs.
The apple has a long and meaningful history for Thomas Salamunovich, owner and chef at Larkspur Restaurant in Vail. The "soul of a classic dessert, the apple Tarte Tatin, was one of the first apple dishes I learned to make," Salamunovich said.
The original "tarte des demoiselles Tatin" was created by accident in 1888 by two sisters who ran the L'Hotel Tatin, located in a small rural town in the Loire Valley. One of the sisters was distracted while making the tart and baked it upside down. Despite the mistake, the guests loved it.
The Darche family, the Tatin's archrivals, taught Salamunovich their version of the upside down apple tarte while he was staging in La Ferte Saint-Aubin. "I was told to hold the apple like a violin and the peeler like a bow, and to peel the apples to Chopin," Salamunovich said. The "Tarte Tatin" became world famous in the early 1900s when the famed Maxim's Restaurant in Paris put it on their menu.
Larkspur's pastry chef, Mark Metzger, and Salamunovich baked and taste tested 25 apple tarts this week for Larkspur's Back Yard Farm Lunch, slated for Sunday.
"The farm lunch will have an Asian twist," Salamunovich said, "Mark makes the most amazing puff pastry from scratch."
The pastry is spread with a Fuji apple and ginger puree, topped with sliced apples set in a fan formation, finished with butter and sugar and served fresh out of the oven with a lemongrass creme anglaise and a candied ginger creme.
Not just for dessert
When you think about apples, don't just think dessert. Apples can be used in any number of savory dishes.
"I prefer using Empire or MacIntosh apples in savory applications," said Fischer, who prepares roasted Brussels sprouts, sauteed apples and sage with a roast duck, which he serves at Six89. Or try crispy pork belly with green apple agro dulce, celery root puree, and apple cider gastrique at The Pullman. But for eating "give me a honey crisp," said Fischer.
The best way to understand this most classic and simple fruit is to experiment. Try a Jonathan with a wedge of Lamborn Bloomer goat cheese from Colorado's Avalanche Cheese Company, bake a simple apple and pear crumble with Fuji apples (recipe at www.larkspurvail.com/happenings), or simply join the harvest by eating your way through a basket of apples.
Kelly Brinkerhoff is a local freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur (www.larkspurvail.com), at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. (firstname.lastname@example.org)