I’ve always been enamored by apple orchards. An orchard outing serves as one last chance to be somewhat outdoorsy before the snow falls and I’m confined to a chair next to the radiator for five months. I missed out on autumnal activities last year; this year was going to be different. I craved a bite of a crisp, freshly picked apple (plain or enrobed in chewy caramel and nuts), I wanted to walk the open landscapes that put turning leaves proudly on display, since those leaves seem to come and die in the blink of an eye around here.
I was determined to find my ideal orchard. And of course, for me, the perfect orchard is not just the most picturesque, but the one with the best treats. And the most iconic treat of the New England orchard is the cider donut. Going into this, a little part of me knew that orchards could not keep up with the demand and used mixes for their confections, but the other part of me pictured little old ladies in hairnets making cake donuts and adding glugs of the farm’s pressed cider. The purist in me was disappointed when some snooping found the former to be true in most cases. Since all orchards are run by extremely passionate and hard-working growers, I knew that my favorite farm would probably be the one that sold a scratch-made donut.
Here’s a comprehensive account of my Orchard Crawl.
Carver Hill Orchard in Stow, MA
The Scene: The small lot was not overly populated for a sunny Sunday. The farm store was small, red, and rustic. It was like a secret little orchard, tucked away from the hullabaloo of the ever-popular Honey Pot Hill, located five minutes down the road.
The Donuts: The window into the cider donut-making room revealed a cranky looking man, a bucket-o-donut mix, and a machine that dropped donuts so leaden, they landed with a thud on the counter.
Other Goodies: Inside, baked goods came from a commercial pie maker. Perhaps the picking is good, but the store sent me to the neighboring orchard empty-handed.
Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, MA
The Scene: Flash from an empty lot to a 30-minute wait for parking. I immediately stood in line for the famed caramel apples and cider donuts, and a sign ten people ahead of me marked a one hour wait from that point to the window. It was a beautiful day, so the wait was not at all unpleasant. Children hopped about, carrying caramel apples the size of their heads and purposefully removing the thick caramel layer, their baby teeth not making it through to the apple. Families shared a gallon of cider, passing around round after round in small paper cups. So, were the goodies as idyllic as the scene?
The Donuts: The puffy cider donuts, served warm from the fryer, were cakey, moist, crispy on the outside and rolled in just the right amount of sugar. Unfortunately, a potato sack-sized bag of Bake n’ Joy cider donut mix caught my attention. But I have to admit, these were good. Perhaps Honey Pot Hill just nails its fry method.
Other Goodies: The caramel apple was everything it should be. A crisp macoun was covered in a good ¼ inch of sticky, pully, rip-your-teeth-out, dark, buttery caramel. The peanut covered caramel apple — usually my favorite — paled in comparison; the gala’s sweet aroma did not stand out under the caramel, and the nuts cried for salt. I was impressed that they sold homemade fudge, as most orchards get theirs from local candy houses, but the dark chocolate square tasted more like homemade plastic.
Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, MA
The Scene: I definitely had the most pleasant day at Cider Hill. The air felt of fall, but the sun was strong enough to temper even the strongest gusts. The farm store had enough in stock for a lengthy browse. The mums were brilliantly colored. The pumpkins were of my preferred style: uniquely shaped and dimpled, with long interesting stems. The picking grounds were vast, and the trails allowed for some uphill climbing.
The Donuts: A look behind the donut window unearthed another bag of donut mix, this one from Multifoods. The crisp-shelled donuts won points for being lighter than those at Honey Pot, but the innards were a bit insubstantial.
Other Goodies: The number of varieties of apples ready for picking and in the store far exceeded any I have ever seen at other orchards. There were apples with shapes, names, and colors I had never encountered, all with descriptions that left me salivating. Cider Hill lived up to its namesake with an unpasteurized apple cider that was bright and full of depth, most likely from a combination of several apple varieties. And the honey made on site had a rich color and light floral taste. Cider Hill was great for anything that wasn’t baked.
Tougas Family Farm in Northborough, MA
The Scene: This was the farm I grew up going to, but things have changed in recent years. The kitchen moved and seemed larger and more industrial. The farm store turned into a “donut hut.” Patrons walked around taking licks of psychedelic-colored ice cream, a new addition that seemed out of place. There was a loss of charm.
The Donuts: The cider donuts were of the cake variety but were dense and bready and lacking in the sugar coating department. Specks of cinnamon made me guess these were homemade, but I happened to see a Bake n’ Joy mix again.
Other Goodies: The apple crisp à la mode featured well-flavored apples that held their shape, but only a smattering of oats and sugar took the place of a crunchy topping. The vanilla ice cream only melted due to the unseasonably warm temperatures, because the crisp was cold. The cider had good depth, but lacked the spice that the advertised mulling should have provided
Russell Orchard in Ipswich, MA
The Scene: It was 85 degrees. The sun was willing to penetrate the skin of any orchard visitor. The farm was filled to the brim with patrons and children. Although this could have been a recipe for disaster, Russell Orchard was far and away the overall best orchard at this point on the crawl. The store was adorable and barn-like, with sweet smells coming from every direction.
The Donuts: For some, they may be disappointing, since most New Englanders are used to the yellow cake innards of the others, their flavor coming partially from a subtle cider tang and primarily from the cinnamon-sugar coating. These lacked the coating I adore but they didn’t need it. A man takes the donuts straight from the fryer to your bag and they’re in your hands in a second. You want to rip into them right away but beware, these things are hot enough to bedazzle your fingers and tongue in blisters. Although they could benefit from a quick rest on a paper towel to soak up the excess oil, the fry gives these donuts big crunch. An inside shot reveals a dark, apple spice cake–like center. They’re spicy and warn; they’re fall in a ring.
Other Goodies: The window in the back of the case of cookies, pumpkin muffin tops, scones and more revealed a large bakery-style kitchen with worker bees merrily turning out homey pastries from scratch. Finally. In fact, the Grammy of the farm has her own blog on the Russell website, where she posts recipes and cites her affinity for doing things the “right” way, as seen in this post on the cider donuts. An apple pie roll-up was a portable pastry filled with apples of the perfect texture and bite with caramelized sugar and spices and a flaky all-butter crust. Russell is also a winery, and they were holding a tasting of their beautiful hard ciders and fruit wines, all made from their award-winning fruit. Russell is certainly doing it right!
Atkins Farm in Amherst, MA
The Scene: Well, it certainly wasn’t what I expected. The orchards of Atkins Farm are hidden somewhere, detached from the country store. As I expected, the parking lot was filled to the brim with autumn revelers. We passed an adorable little area where children could stuff their own scarecrows with hay. Once inside though, it became evident that this was not a cute little farm store, it was a glorified grocery store. While some products were either grown by Atkins or local, the rest—and I’m so sorry for saying this—were simply junk.
The Donuts: The cider donuts here are highly lauded by yelpers, orchard afficianados and even Boston Magazine. Supposedly, the farm has been using the same recipe since 1971. Did people really use palm oil and artificial flavors as widely in 1971? These donuts were packed with them. A bakery attendant grabbed my donut from a big plastic box. Surprisingly, the one bite I did take was nice and crisp, but the center of the donut was pale, flavorless and dry.
Other Goodies:The bag in which the donut was unlovingly placed read: “Country Freshness made from Scratch,” and Atkins stresses its use of ingredients your grandma would have baked with. Yeah, I don’t think so. The caramel apple was enrobed in a very thick layer of caramel which contained modified food starch and “modified butter.” I took a single bite (this is for you, folks) and can tell you it was chewy but pointlessly so, as it was flavorless. Homemade salted dark chocolate and caramel fudge was similarly tasteless, and the pumpkin fudge managed to taste sweeter than a spoonful of sugar, straight up. I will give them credit for their freshly ground peanut butter, which was dry but purely peanutty. It’s not like anyone here is obsessed with peanut butter or anything. Although Atkins Farm was a disappointment, I found two gems in Amherst that you’ll be hearing about soon!
All of these orchards deserve a visit, but if you’re looking for autumnal treats to fuel your apple picking, Russell Orchards in Ipswich will become the apple of your eye.