• Otter Views: Apples of Autumn at Wilder Ranch

    Waking Saturday morning to rainy streets and the slow drip-drip-splash of bedroom ceiling leaks suggested autumn was finally making an appearance. It was only a cameo, but was enough to point me northward to Wilder Ranch state historic

    park.The park and its many acres flank Highway One a few miles north of Santa Cruz. On Saturday, the old ranch compound hosted an autumn festival that admirably showcased bygone skills and the surrounding country’s seasonal bounty. The event was fun, engaging and remarkably cell phone-free.

    Many of the ranch’s historic structures and systems are still functional. On Saturday, a full crew of park volunteers in period dress welcomed festival goers to 19th century California farm life. As a country fiddler and guitarist played a lively reel, a veteran caller led line dancing. The clop of hooves and jingle of harnesses marked the approach of a passenger wagon pulled by matched draft horses.

    In one farm building, volunteers showed kids how to make cornstalk dolls and decorative pumpkins. Kids could also turn the crank to create fresh, farm-made pumpkin ice cream. What this lacked in consistency, it made up for in tastiness.

    A nearby barn revealed on its ground floor three work rooms for separate tasks. The largest room featured belt-driven machine tools powered by an ingenious water wheel and piping array. By simply turning a valve, the docent set in motion a wood turning lathe, a drill press, a grinder and several other interconnected machines. Rube Goldberg would have approved.

    In a carbon-blackened smithy next door, two other volunteers pushed iron rods into a fiery mound of charcoal. Once the metal was red-hot, they withdrew the rods and beat them on an anvil into horse- shoes and other farm implements.

    A third work room held an antique cider press into which volunteers poured apple slices. Kids were invited to crank the press and watch the “oozings” collect beneath a cheese cloth. As festival goers far outnumbered oozings, the resulting cider could only be sampled in small cups, but what an elixir. It was the very essence of apple.

    Apples themselves held court in a tent village that had been set up on the grassy verge of an orchard. Beneath the tents were several long tables arranged in a square. Inside the square, 20 or more apple growers busily slivered up and plated their favorites. Outside the square, the apple tasters formed a long, leisurely centipede that shuffled in a counter-clockwise direction from one station to the next.

    Each taster was issued a toothpick, a pencil and a score sheet and invited to choose three favorites. Upon completing the circuit, tasters could affix little shiny hearts, stars and dots onto a master chart, thus marking their choices. This sounds easier than it proved, as the tasting featured no fewer than 69 varieties of apples.

    Thankfully, the apple slivers were very thin. The protocol was to pierce a sliver with one’s toothpick, then carefully free it with the fingers, being mindful not to touch the piercing end of the toothpick. Then the fingers would deposit the sliver into the mouth, and the clean toothpick could be readied for the next stab.

    It was a curious system, but it seemed to work. It also suited the pace of the whole endeavor, which was decidedly 19th century. Each crisp, juicy, fragrant, chewy, savory apple sliver deserved its own full measure of consideration. That’s 69 separate savorings. In addition, each apple name had to be processed, if only momentarily.

    I recognized a few names from vari- ous markets, but not the Pinova, Cornish Aromatic, Belle de Boskoop, Simirenko Reinette, Wickson Crab, or Ashmead’s Kernel. Likewise new to me were the Mutsu, Banana Flower, Arkansas Black,

    Pineapple Cox and the Brushy Mountain Limbertwig. Have you ever tasted a Sun-tan? How about an Ida Red, a Christmas Pink or a Calville Blanc? Neither had I.

    When I finally shuffled out of the line, my gold star went to an apple named Wyken, and I forget the other two. Remarkably, all 69 varieties were grown organically within a few miles of Wilder Ranch. May one or more of them show up in your local market soon.

    If you were still hungry after the cider and apple tastings, you could buy popcorn, corn on the cob, fresh baked cookies, and slices of apple pie and pumpkin pie baked in the big cast iron oven in the Wilder Ranch’s Victorian main house. Those who fancied doughnuts could form a line and try to bite them off a wildly bobbing string. The hostess gave contestants 30 seconds to eat all the doughnuts they could snag.

    In keeping with the autumnal theme, antic scare crows guarded long rows of pumpkins grown on the ranch. And with that, may you have a festive and cell phone-free Halloween.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on October 31, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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