By Charlyn Fargo
It may seem unlikely, but Illinois’ cold, warm, windy, rainy and sometimes sunny weather is ideal for raising apples, according to Gail Record Johnson, owner of AppleBarn Orchard in Chatham.
“People always think of Washington for apples, but Illinois grows a lot of apples as well,” says Johnson, an apple grower for 17 years. “And our climate? It’s just perfect. Apples go dormant in the winter.”
Early in the apple season – the end of August in Illinois – the most popular variety is the sweet, juicy and aptly named Honeycrisp. During the middle of the season, the golden-colored Mutsu is the top pick, while late in the season – mid-October – everyone wants the Jonagold, a cross between the tart Jonathan and sweet Golden Delicious.
“We’ve seen varieties change a lot,” Johnson says. “Everyone seems to want the newer varieties.”
In 2010, Illinois raised 43 million pounds of apples for commercial production. That total, valued at $25.3 million, ranked 12th among all the states. Nationally, Washington reigned supreme, followed by New York and Michigan. “But,” Johnson says, “our apples are just as sweet.”
She takes the business of raising apples very seriously. “You just can’t ignore them – you have to be vigilant,” she explains. “We’re always scouting – making sure the buds are OK (and that) there’s no fungus.”
AppleBarn also sells food products made from apples. Not surprisingly, best sellers are apple pie and caramel apples.
But Johnson’s favorite remains simple – a fresh apple in hand.
“I still eat apples all the time,” she says. “You really don’t have to do anything to them. They’re just wonderful as they are.”
That said, here are a few more ways to enjoy your Illinois apples.
To me, traditional wassail recalls my college days, when a local church would serve the hot spiced cider on Friday and Saturday nights – a favorite place to sit and talk with a date.
You can also use apples to spice up oatmeal, which can be made the day before and reheated in the microwave for a quick breakfast, or fire up the grill for a twist on the baked apple with grilled filled apples. Finally, my go-to potluck dessert is apple dapple cake, which comes courtesy of Clara, a secretary in my husband’s office. Its warm, creamy brown sugar topping is just icing on the (apple) cake.