October: The time of year when pumpkin-spiced offerings return to (arguably) too many menus. Autumn inspires us more with its natural sights, smells and tastes, one of which involves spending a lovely October day picking apples and drinking cider at a local orchard.
September through the end of October are “like the Minnesota State Fair on steroids for apple orchards,” says Chris Aamodt, whose family has owned Aamodt’s Apple Farm in Stillwater for three generations. “It’s a blast.”
The 50-acre orchard, founded in 1948 by Aamodt’s grandparents, Thor and Lucille, has more than 6,000 trees that grow everything from Minnesota classics like Honeycrisp and Zestar to newer favorite RiverBelle. In addition to pick-your-own opportunities, Aamodt’s features a restored 1880s barn that houses a bakery and gift shop where you’ll find locally produced honey and real maple syrup alongside fresh apple cider donuts, apple-oatmeal cookies, and all manner of apple salsas, jams and butters.
If hayrides and goat petting zoos aren’t your thing, St. Croix Vineyards is conveniently located on the same acreage as the orchard. “It’s a great atmosphere,” says Aamodt, who co-owns the vineyard with two partners, Paul Quast and Peter Hemstead. “Mom and Dad can have a glass of wine, the kids can pick apples, and everyone has a beautiful fall Saturday.”
Another Valley standout is Afton Apple Orchard, which boasts 13 varieties of pick-your-own apples including Haralson, Honeygold, Regent, Honeycrisp and Cortland. In warmer months, Afton Apple features fresh raspberries and strawberries, but in the fall the big draw is its 15-acre corn maze, with 6 miles of twists and turns divided into three sections for skill levels from beginner to expert.
“There is definitely something for everybody,” says owner Cindy Femling, whose husband answered an ad in the paper seeking an owner for the orchard nearly 30 years ago. The Femlings, who moved to the area from Blaine to raise their children, have created the perfect place for young families to enjoy the scenic countryside, with a large playground that includes a straw mountain, swings, slides, retread hill and a combine that has been recast as a jungle gym.
Running an apple orchard takes a lot of hard work, but “it’s the customers that keep us going,” Femling says.
Since planting the orchard’s first trees in 1975, Keith Kozub of White Pine Orchard in River Falls, Wis., has specialized in growing apples using the most environmentally responsible practices possible, with the goal of providing organic apples that meet or exceed government standards for organic produce. For those interested not only in picking their own apples but in gaining a deeper understanding of the ecological practices that underlie our food system—perhaps while sipping some freshly pressed, unpasteurized apple cider—White Pine Orchard is the place to be.
It’s true this is just a sampling of the Valley’s many orchards; hopefully you’ll have enough to bake, can, preserve and share until next season.
The drink: Honeycrisp Haven The bar: Marx Fusion Bistro the tender: Geoff Aamodt
- 1.5 oz. Honeycrisp purée
- 3 oz. Quintessential gin
- .5 oz. cinnamon-infused simple syrup
- Crispen hard cider to fill glass
Fill a martini shaker with ice. Add the gin, apple purée and simple syrup. Top with Crispen hard cider. Stir and serve in the martini shaker; garnish with a slice of Honeycrisp apple.
“This drink is so refreshing,” says bartender Geoff Aamodt, who sources the Honeycrisp apples for the drink from his family’s orchard, Aamodt’s Apple Farm. The combination of sweet apples, earthy cinnamon and slightly floral gin makes this the perfect end-of-summer cocktail.
Marx Fusion Bistro features classic and inventive seasonal cocktails along with a seafood-focused menu that draws inspiration from Asian, Caribbean and Italian cuisine. Their signature drink list is one of the best in town, with housemade syrups, salts and bitters infusing many of the offerings.
Compiled by Diana Stein
Weekends in the Badlands
October 8–30 Enjoy a day spent picking your own pumpkin, meeting farm animals, doing kids’ craft activities and more. Try your hand at the apple slingshot. All ages. $10, includes all activities and a pumpkin. 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat.–Sun. Badlands Sno-Park
Apple Fest 2016
October 8–9 Carpenter Nature Center hosts this annual celebration with hayrides, all-ages music and entertainment, children’s activities, and animals. Be sure to stop by the apple shack. All ages. Free. 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
October 1–2, 8–9, 15–16 The first three weekends in October are all about apples at Afton Apple Orchard. Watch a cider-pressing demonstration, groove to bluegrass music and see a live magic show, all while enjoying apple fritters, apple doughnuts and the best caramel apple sundaes around. All ages. $4, ages 5+, $3 ages 4 and younger. 10 a.m.–6 p.m.