Early November is really the best time to admire the changing trees in rural Albemarle County, despite all the fall festivals scheduled in October. That’s when the Cove Garden Ruritans and Vintage Virginia Apples schedule their annual Apple Harvest Festival, now in its 17th year. It’s at the Albemarle Ciderworks (part of Vintage Virginia Apples) the first farm-based cider-making operation in the area.
Over the 17 years, it’s evolved a bit and gotten bigger. The Ruritans make and sell Brunswick stew and apple butter; and farm-based and food-related home businesses demonstrate and sell their products. There are workshops, too: this year, crowds learned how to pair Virginia apples with Virginia cheeses, make vinegar or additive-free jam at home, attract bees, or start an orchard out back. They also took a few bites out of apples that long-gone generations of Virginians enjoyed––now raised in the Vintage Virginia orchards—and chose their favorites to take home.
Margaret Shelton is part of the extended family that owns and runs the Virginia apple and cider operation, but her business, Shelton Herb Farm, specializes in plants, not fruit. Every November she makes the trip from coastal North Carolina to central Virginia to convince people here to keep their gardens going through the winter. She makes a good case.
In her talk to the crowds who braved a chilly drizzle to duck under the tent at Vintage Virginia, Shelton had some advice for making the ingredients for winter sides and salads soldier on through the frigid nights. First, pick the right plants, she said There are plenty of cold-hardy varieties that flourish until the temperatures plunge below 20 degrees, She recommends vegetables from the kale family, like broccoli, pak choi, tatzu, collards and cabbage. Southern herbs and greens that seem to do especially well are cilantro, chard, chervil fennel, parsley, celery, cress and spinach.
Beets, carrots, radishes, turnips and rutabaga—the root vegetables we associate with spring and late fall—can hold on in the winter with a little care, Shelton said.
First, choose the right location, up against your home if in containers, or where there’s ample sunshine if in your yard. Hanging baskets aren’t recommended, as frigid air surrounds the suspended container on all sides. When the temperature really drops, Shelton recommends a cover, and hoops of wire or other materials can support protective fabric in your garden rows or small raised beds, protecting plants whether in a cold snap or left in place throughout the winter months. Planting in lightweight containers allows gardeners to bring planters inside when an especially cold night is forecast.
For those still skeptical, Shelton mentions the flower that seems to freeze and re-emerge as many times as needed through the winter: “If you can grow pansies, you can grow greens,” she said.
Can she bake an apple pie?
One of the highlights of the day-long event is the apple pie contest, and Jean Enzbrenner of Waynesboro was this year’s winner. Enzbrenner said her grandmother got her started with pie-making. “Every time I make a pie, I think of her.”
Enzbrenner likes to use a variety of apples for more flavorful pies, and crammed four different types into her winning pie. She uses a recipe she found in Cooks Illustrated, and advises first-time pie bakers to keep the ingredients for the crust as cold as possible.
Pie contest judge Rachel Willis of Crozet’s Cakes by Rachel said one of the secrets of a good apple pie is to let it be about the apples. “Don’t use a heavy hand with the spices,” she said. Enzbrenner has another tip: “I put a lot of love in each pie I make,” she said.
A group effort
Charlotte Shelton is a member of the Cove Garden Ruritans Club as well as one of the owners of the apple and cider operations. “The Ruritans are key to this, and they start the night before,” she said. They come in on the Friday before the festival and chop the vegetables for the stew. They also start the apple butter—made from apples grown there––and cook it down until midnight or so, Shelton said. They bank the fires, then start the stew and restart the hot cauldrons of apple butter early Saturday. The stew recipe comes from a Ruritan member who shared it back in the ’80s: The apple butter is usually composed of Ida Reds and Staymans. “They hope to be through with the stew in time for lunch, and with the apple butter by 2 or so,” Shelton said.
Other Ruritans handle parking and operate trail rides. “It’s a real community day,” Shelton said. The Ruritans use the money they raise––usually several thousand dollars––to address needs in the southern Albemarle area.
A perfect pair
Shelton helped with a presentation on pairing Virginia cheese with Virginia apples, using cheese from Esmont, the site of Caromont, the goat farm and artisan dairy of Gail Hobbs Page. The cheeses featured were Caromont’s fresh chèvre, the Esmontonian, and a cow’s milk cheese washed with cider.
Albemarle Ciderworks will offer heritage apples until the end of the year, every day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Shelton said the pippins are still very sound, along with the gold rush apples, known for their keeping ability, and the Cripp’s pink.
After the close of the apple season, the cidery is open Wednesdays through Sundays, January through June.