We had the occasion to go to Pittsburgh, PA (I'm specifying only because I got asked "Which Pittsburg/h?" twice in the lead-up to our trip) this past weekend. My oldest friend D. was getting married (we've known each other for almost a quarter of a century now), and his bride hails from Pittsburgh. We decided we were going to drive and it soon became apparent that we were going to have to leave on the Thursday in order to get to Pittsburgh in time for my Friday, 2 PM tux fitting (I was in the party). When we started to chart our trip in our Rand-McNally Road Atlas we got excited. We'd been wanting to visit Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, NY ever since Gourmet profiled their apricots in their July 2003 issue, and Geneva, NY was right along our way. When we realized a stop in Allegany State Park, NY would put us well within striking distance of Pittsburgh, we had just enough of an itinerary for a nice little road trip. We settled on a route that would take us along as many secondary and scenic highways as possible, and early Thursday morning we shipped off.
Red Jacket Orchards is located in Geneva, NY, right near the northern tip of Lake Seneca in the Finger Lakes District. We were hoping for at least a view of Red Jacket's orchards and possibly even an orchard tour, but when we found Red Jacket's store it turned out that that was pretty much all there was to view (on such short notice at least). The Red Jacket store is surrounded by a number of orchards located in between big box stores like Wal-Mart and BJ's on the edge of Geneva, and Geneva is still home to the operation, but Red Jacket is now a sprawling, highly decentralized network of orchards and the bulk of their orchard lands are dotted all across the countryside along the western side of Lake Seneca.
At their store you can find all kinds of different produce, preserves, and dry goods from around the region, but the real highlight is Red Jacket's own freshly picked fruit and their line of fruit juices. We knew there wouldn't be any of those famous apricots available because they're now long out-of-season, but we were very excited about Red Jacket's new-crop apples. When we entered we headed straight for the apple juice tasting bar, positioned underneath a row of Oscar-like trophies, and although I'd had Red Jacket Orchards apple juice before, I was really impressed by their Fuji Apple Juice on this occasion. They also had a fruit tasting bar, so we tried a few slices of fruit, but they tasted too good, and we were starting to get over-excited, so we just headed over to the teeming displays of Red Jacket apples and started making our selections. 15 minutes later, we walked out with a big bag of apples, a couple of bottles of Red Jacket Orchards fruit juice, and a slab of local cheddar cheese.
A half an hour after that we sat down at a picnic table alongside Lake Keuka, broke out the apples, the cheese, and our bottle of Joe's Summer Blend (with apples and lemons) and had ourselves a late afternoon snack. All the apples we tried were excellent, but the ones that really wowed us were Red Jacket's Crispins. They were wonderfully crisp (imagine that!) and sweet, with just a little bit of tartness to them, and the faintest hint of spice. Unfortunately, we only bought two Crispins, and we regretted that decision for the rest of the trip. The Crispin is one with the bites taken out of it in the picture below.
In spite of the big box stores on its outskirts, we really liked Geneva. It had a nicely preserved downtown core and some absolutely stunning "summer homes" (the kind you see in places like Saratoga Springs, NY and Newport, RI) gracing the banks of Lake Seneca. The town that charmed us the most, however, was probably Penn Yan. Like Marjoe, the legendary child preacher whose name was created by his parents out of an odd contraction of Mary and Joseph, Penn Yan's name was formed out of a similarly odd contraction of Pennsylvania and Yankee and it attests to the town's origins in the late 18th century. Even before we got into town we liked Penn Yan because we started to see those road signs warning us to look out for buggy traffic, and, sure enough, we started to pass Mennonite farms and even a Mennonite buggy soon afterwards. Penn Yan, too, had a nicely preserved Main Street core, but it wasn't until we got out of the car and walked around a bit that we really fell in love.
You see, Penn Yan is home to Birkett Mills ("est. 1797"), a flour mill specializing in buckwheat ("It's better with buckwheat!"). We took a self-guided tour of the lovely mill complex along the river, and studied the massive griddle adorning the side of the main building. It seems Birkett Mills sponsored the creation of a world-record sized pancake back in 1987, and you can get a sense of just how big that world-record buckwheat pancake was if you compare the size of the griddle with the size of the truck positioned next to it. We asked the guy working the counter at the bric-a-brac shop across the street about the event, and he claimed that the amount of batter was so huge that it was mixed in a brand-new, never-been-used-before cement mixer, then poured into the hot griddle which was sitting over a massive bonfire. After hearing that story we decided we had to buy some Birkett Mills flour. We asked if they had a store, got directions, then found our way to Birkett Mill's shop/business headquarters at the other end of Main St. We haven't had a chance to try the pastry flour, kasha, and buckwheat pancake mix that we bought there, but, god, do we love Birkett Mills' packaging.
Red Jacket Orchards, Geneva, NY, www.redjacketorchards.com
Birkett Mills, Penn Yan, NY, (313) 536-3311, www.thebirkettmills.com