This year, not only did we want to avoid those big, touristy apple orchard/amusement parks, but we actually wanted to go some place different, some area we'd never visited before to pick our crop of apples. We'd been excited to go apple picking ever since we'd paid a visit to Red Jacket in New York at the beginning of September--after all, Quebec is a premier apple growing region, too--but we really wanted to go some place new. That's why we went to Covey Hill.
We'd owned this vintage apple crate for a couple of years,
but it was only a couple of weeks ago, when I started to think about where I might like to go apple picking this time around, that I took a close look at it and thought to myself, "Hmm, Covey Hill..." You see, we'd been using the crate for storage, and we'd stupidly placed the side you see in the photo out of view. The sides that read "Unsurpassed Flavour" and "Saveur Insurpassable" had always been in view, but we'd only just turned the crate around so you could see the "Covey Hill" side.
As quests go, this wasn't exactly a search for Rosebud, but it was something. Covey Hill doesn't appear on most maps these days, and the first two internet mapping services that I consulted didn't turn it up either. But I found other references to Covey Hill, and what I read--the fact that Covey Hill is the only part of the Adirondack chain that sits on Canadian territory, the fact that's its known for its unusual transitional ecosystem, etc.--got me further interested. When I finally pinpointed its location--in the southwestern corner of Quebec, just above the New York border, west of Hemmingford along the 202 just before Franklin--and found out that the area was still heavily dotted with apple orchards, I was sold.
So on Monday, we took advantage of Canadian Thanksgiving--a holiday which is awkwardly placed after a weekend and which is low on mythology and obligations (in other words, a holiday perfect for apple picking)--to make our way to the countryside. We zipped down the 15 towards the New York state line, then cut across the 219 to Hemmingford, a town that holds a place in Michelle's pantheon because of its celebrated yarn fair. We took a quick look around for any signs of a yarn fair or a Thanksgiving Day méchoui, then veered off on the 202 along a route that became more and more sparsely populated, and more and more scenic, as we headed west. Only the occasional farm, horse stable, and orchard broke up the landscape, which was getting more and more forested the further we went, and around Havelock we suddenly began to see a somewhat imposing, if low, hill that could only have been Covey Hill.
Covey Hill proper only contains a couple of apple orchards today, and we weren't able to figure out whether the apple orchard that produced our apple crate is still in existence, but we still got a kick out of locating a number of Covey Hill-related signs, Covey Hill's abandoned 1869 Zion Church,
a few spooky, mist-enshrouded farms, and some other landmarks. Then we turned our attention to neighboring Franklin, which is just a few kilometers further along the 202, and has at least a dozen apple orchards of all sizes.
We toured the area to try to get a sense of what the different orchards were like and which ones we'd be interested in picking our apples from. For the most part, they all looked pretty amazing, their trees heavy with dark red fruit, and I was relieved to see even the biggest of the orchards in that area were not all that tourist-oriented. Sure, the larger ones--like Hillspring Farm, one of the region's bigger apple cider producers--had added attractions like pony rides and whatnot, but these weren't the kind of full-on three-ring circuses that you find in some parts of Quebec. For the most part, apple orchards, like cabanes à sucre, have gone so crass in recent years, you really have to dig a little to find places that don't turn your stomach. Anyway, we were mostly interested in finding selection, because we had some harder to find apples like russets in mind, and if we could find a smaller, quieter orchard and support a small farmer, all the better.
We saw a couple of orchards that looked promising right in the heart of Franklin, but Michelle had spotted a couple of smaller orchards outside of Franklin centre, towards Havelock and Covey Hill, so after making a stop to pick up some wonderful honey crisps from one stand, we headed back towards Covey Hill. A few minutes later, we pulled into Eugene Safian's orchard, and as soon as we got out of the truck, took a look around, and talked to M. Safian we were sure we'd made the right choice. M. Safian had about 8 varieties ripe for the picking, including russets, spys, empires, cortlands, red delicious, and golden delicious, he had wonderful-looking pears for sale, his prices were right, and he was a real sweetheart of a guy.
M. Safian took us out into his orchard and showed us where we could find what and which trees he recommended, then we sampled a couple of apples and got to work. Within a half an hour we'd filled our two big buckets with as wide a selection of apples as we could get our hands on.
Then we went back to M. Safian's stand, talked him up about his selection of homemade preserves, honeys (including his hearty buckwheat honey, which he insisted was rich in vitamin C, and therefore the perfect antidote to the common cold), and pears, made some selections, and paid up. A good-sized bucket of pears came to $10.00. Our buckwheat honey came to $4.25, with the 25¢ rebate we got for being good customers. And those two big buckets of apples came to a mere $6.00 each, about $4.00 less that most of his competitors. When we'd gone out into the orchard with him, we talked about how 2005 had proven to be a poor year for apples, with a late summer and early fall that had been too hot and too humid to make for a good apple crop. All I can say is that when we tried M. Safian's apples we sure couldn't tell it had been a bad year. His apples were as good as any apples I've ever had, crisp, juicy, and full of flavor.
When we got home, we laid the apples out on our dining room table so that they could air dry (it had been raining in Franklin/Covey Hill). Then Michelle took a few gems from our haul, peeled them and diced them, and whipped up an apple crumble for our afternoon snack. We sat down, had a cup of "autumn blend" tea, ate our crumble, and basked in the glow of our fresh-picked apples.
Covey Hill and Franklin are located on the 202, about 20 km west of Hemmingford, just north of the U.S. border.
M. Eugene Safian's orchard is just east of Franklin, between Franklin and Havelock, on the north side of the 202 near the point where it intersects with the 201. As his handmade business card reads, he has apples, pears, and honey for sale and you can reach him at (450) 827-2423 after 9 p.m. Sorry, he doesn't have a website.
Oh, and, by the way, M. Safian estimates that he should have apples available for about another 4 weeks.