Apple picking, pumpkin patching, & the joys of the cider doughnut

applesLast weekend's fat harvest moon flipped a switch, and all of a sudden, it's fall. Tomatoes still shine in the garden, but now's the time to gorge on (or can) what's ripe, and accept that what's green now will still be green at Thanksgiving. At the farmers' market, grapes, figs, pomegranates, and winter squash are muscling out the last peaches and melons of the season.

If you're a Northeast transplant like me, you can't cross off the first week in October without craving the first bite of a snappy fresh apple, all crunch and tang. And any apple is better when you've picked it yourself right off the tree, blue sky painted between the branches and the promise of hot cider and fresh cider doughnuts to come.

As a kid, every autumn held a sunny October weekend where my mom would toss my sisters and I into the back of the Volvo (ah, the jouncing-around, sister-jabbing joys of the pre-carseat era!) and head out to the country to go apple picking. This was the Garden State in the 70s, and there was still a lot of working farmland around. Even my hometown, an otherwise drab suburb whose last exciting moment happened in 1780, had a small farm smack in the middle of it, right across the street from my elementary school.

It didn't take long to shake loose from the strip malls and find a place where we could run through the trees, getting stung by yellowjackets drunk on fermenting fallen fruit, and filling bag after bag with Winesaps and Macouns. Always next to the dusty parking lot was a little farm market selling cloudy, fresh-pressed apple cider, boxed apple pies and best of all, cider doughnuts. They were popped fresh out of a greasy, batter-spattered contraption that moved rings of batter along a conveyor belt of bubbling oil, flipping, frying, and finally spitting them down a chute to be sugared and sold.

What's a cider doughnut, you ask? Oh, you poor deprived child, you. Yes, here in California you had sunshine and skateboarding, while we had slush and mittens, but the doughnuts, and the snow days, were worth it. Cider doughnuts are nothing more than cake doughnuts made with apple cider in the dough, usually rolled in cinnamon sugar and best served minutes from the fryer. For East Coast kids, though, they have a mythical connection to autumn, all part of the memory of deep blue skies and the crunch of leaves underfoot, geese flying in V's overhead and the first smell of woodsmoke after dinner.

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Recreating this experience on the West Coast can take a little doing. For the full sticky-fingered, apple-and-doughnut experience, you need to hit the road and head up to the gold country northeast of Sacramento, near Placerville. To Apple Hill, to be exact, where the foothills of the Sierras offer the warm days, chilly nights, and colder winters that apples like. Apple fritters, hayrides, cider and u-picks abound, although the varieties of apples lean more towards Galas and Fujis-- sweeter, milder apples that don't need as many below-freezing winter chill hours as their hardier East Coast cousins. Most likely to scratch that East-Coast itch is the charming Rainbow Orchards, in Camino, which offers excellent fresh-pressed cider and hot cider doughnuts in their barn, along with sprawling acres of apple trees, live bluegrass music, and lots of room for picnicking.

Closer to home, you can take a meandering drive on the back roads west of Petaluma to the Chileno Valley Ranch. Here, between folded hills still lion-colored from summer's long dry days, are sprig-headed quail skittering across the road while hawks ride the rising air currents overhead. Herds of black Holsteins and buff Jerseys drowse beneath the oak trees.

You can see the small organic orchard as you drive up, planted on a gentle slope running down to the barn. Nearby are chicken coops, some vigorously baah-ing goats and sheep, and a lavish flower garden brimming with roses. Sally Gale, who owns the ranch with her husband Mike (the ranch property has been in her family since 1856), is usually on hand to walk pickers through the trees, pointing out green, grapefruit-sized Mutsus (great for baking) and dainty lunchbox-sized Pink Ladies and Pinovas, along with Molly's Delicious and fat, late-ripening Arkansas Black Twigs. In the barn, where you go to pay for your haul ($2/lb) is a small table with some of the ranch's other products, which might include eggs, tomatoes, red pears, dried beans, and the ranch's own grass-fed local beef.

If the scene at Chileno Valley is a little low-key for your taste, then don't miss the signs for the Peter Pumpkin Patch on your way back. Follow the (naturally) pumpkin-shaped signs to Spring Hill Road, where the otherwise cow-centric Spring Hill Cheese Company dairy is decked out in full haybale-and-pumpkin drag through the end of October. There is an acres-wide field dotted with fat orange jack-o-lanterns on the vine, each more carve-worthy than the last. And then there are stacks of edible winter squash in all sizes and shapes (carnival, acorn, rouge vif d'etampes, munchkin, banana, and more); pyramids of hay to climb and jump from; a tractor-pulled wagon; even a very patient cow to milk. The air, it's true, is tangy with the smell of cow pat (a scent that always made a rancher friend breathe deep and exhale with satisfaction, saying, "Ah, the smell of money!"), but there are plenty of picnic tables nonetheless.

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What's actually the most fun, though, is the dig-your-own-potato patch. The appeal isn't immediately apparent--walk across the road from the pumpkins, and you'll find yourself in a field of scrubby weeds. Pick up one of the long gardening forks provided, however, and look for a dried-out stalk, remnants of what was once a green and growing potato plant. Jab the fork in about 8 inches from the stalk, dig, wiggle, and lift, and voila! Buried treasure, in the shape of silky-skinned Yukon Golds. It is oddly satisfying and hard to stop, not quite this kind of gold, but a lot easier to find, and only $1/lb.

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