Dining Out: Apple Hill

“Have you been to Apple Hill?”

This is a question that has popped up from time to time, always during the fall, in the five years I’ve lived in Sacramento. The thing is, I never knew what Apple Hill was. When I asked, people seemed really short of specifics. “You know, Apple Hill.” I pictured a mythical place, a single hill with a single apple tree atop it, a sun permanently setting in the background.

The truth is far more mundane but tasty. I love apples, or at least most of the kinds without the word “delicious” in their name (more on that later). Apple Hill, in case you’re still wondering and don’t know in that obscure osmosis way that Sacramentans seem to have, is a collection of over 50 orchards and farms near Placerville. They’ve joined together, via the Apple Hill Growers Association, to create an ongoing festival of all things apple, with various events running from May through December.

But fall is definitely the time to go. About 1 p.m. this past Sunday, seven of us pulled up in two cars to High Hill Ranch, the central area of that enigma known as Apple Hill, and, after taking awhile to find parking, headed out to have some fun.

Near the entrance they were handing out free samples of some of the best apple cider I’ve ever tasted—probably to prime you to spend money. First we checked out the short hayride, where, among a few other things, they showed us the outside of the 700,000-square-foot apple warehouse. Apples can be easily stored for a year, which is one reason they caught on in Colonial America in the first place (the other was that they could so easily be turned into alcoholic cider, once the beverage of choice for much of the country).

Then it was on to apple shopping. They had numerous varieties, in huge bins. We go through a lot of apples in our house, mainly Fujis and similar crisp varieties. Maybe because we’d just been told how long apples can last, we bought seven pounds. Joy was looking for some apples to turn into homemade apple butter with a friend. We asked at one of the restaurants if they had any recommendations on what type to use. Our Fujis, it seems, are too crisp and hard to cook down well. She recommended Golden Delicious or Gravenstein.

Now the Red Delicious apple I got many days with school lunch when I was a kid kept me from wanting to eat apples for years. I was convinced they were made by taking old chalkboard dust, mixing it with some water, sticking it in a mould and then spray-painting the result bright red. Later, when I discovered other varieties, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to grow, let alone eat, these monstrosities. Golden Delicious aren’t much better. Needless to say, Joy went for the Gravensteins.

In terms of savory food, there wasn’t too much outside the hamburger/hot dog/fries genre. There were a couple of major food buildings. We actually discovered a surprisingly good and not that overpriced Chinese chicken wrap in one of them, and ordered four.

Then it was on to fishing. They have a pond completely overstocked with trout. For $6.50, plus a $3.50 “fishing license,” we rented a pole and handed it over to my best friend Ed’s 11-year-old stepson. Julian, alas, seemed to only want to catch the biggest fish and yanked the bait away from any other fish that went for it. While trying to give him pointers, I caught two and Ed caught one (yes, not very challenging) using the little rubber bait they provided (the bait pellets they sold for $50 were too hard and brittle to get onto the hook without spearing yourself). Moments before we had to return the pole, Julian finally caught a fish. We paid the 75 cents to get them cleaned, then paid $8.50 a pound to carry them off. Ed and I each took home a pair. Ours were mighty good after I fried them up the next night in a cast iron pan with turmeric and sea salt.

For desert, some folks went for pie – the combo apple/pecan pie with vanilla ice cream was mighty good. But I had to go for the caramel apple shake made with real cider. It was unlike anything I’d ever had, sweet and fruity and creamy all at once. A few hours later I found myself at Chipotle watching other people eat, because that shake filled me up for about five hours.

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