Yes, you can buy your Halloween pumpkin from the large cardboard bins that are in every imaginable store right now. And these same stores have more than half a dozen varieties of apples to choose from, too. But in the spirit of keeping it local and maybe having an even wider selection of fall fruits to choose from, why not pile the kids and grans in the car and head for one of the many pumpkin patches or apple orchards for a fun and nutritious outing?
Pumpkin patches abound during the fall months. Many are located at farms where they grow their own pumpkins onsite. Many may also invite you in with lots of other activities, such as hay rides and corn mazes, to boot. A few patches buy their pumpkins in from other commercial growers, but for kids (of any age, including the kid in all of us adults), it is mesmerizing and fun to wander among the bright orange globes all spread out on the ground. Each has its unique character and will inspire the ghoulish or whimsical face that is hiding in its ribs and wrinkles. There will be pumpkins of every size, too, from the miniature Jack Be Little to the mammoth Atlantic Giant.
Not all pumpkins are orange. In fact what we call pumpkins are of varying parentage and actually belong to several species that include the winter squashes such as the butternut and acorn varieties. More and more growers are offering some other shades of “pumpkins” as well as the familiar orange ones. Ghostly white-skinned pumpkins still have golden flesh, so provide great contrast for the skilled jack-o-lantern carver. There are also hosts of gray to bluish pumpkin varieties, and some of them are making their way onto the scene. Think of Dorothy’s blue-faced wicked witch for inspiration in carving them. Many pumpkin patches also offer colorful gourds, Indian corn, and other ornamental vegetable wares to add to your fall decorations.
For a comprehensive listing of area pumpkin patches, including addresses, hours of operation, and even links to their Web sites, go to pumpkinpatchesandmore.org/index.php.
Apples are another fall favorite, and within a few miles, there are orchards and fruit stands that offer the very freshest and tastiest fruits you can find (well, except for the farmers’ markets, of course). Famous among long-timers along the Central Coast is See Canyon. Just behind Avila Beach is a narrow canyon with a perfect microclimate for growing apples. Several of the farms either open up for sale during harvest or set up fruit stands along the narrow highway to tempt passersby. While apples are famous for their storage properties and can be kept nearly year round, there is nothing to compare to a fresh, crisp, juicy apple, picked at its peak of flavor.
Don’t be surprised to find apple varieties that you may never have heard of before. Sure, you’ve bought Fuji, but have you tried Red Fuji? Golden Supreme? How about one of the best for both eating and baking-Braeburn? These growers are interested in cultivars that will produce well in their particular sites, many of which do not receive the same number of chill hours as those grown farther north in large commercial orchards. See Canyon growers have a wide selection of cultivars, such as Jonalicious, which gets even sweeter after it is picked and stored; Nittany, a great apple for baking; and Stayman Winesap, good for making applesauce. Since they sell mainly to the fresh trade in small quantities, they are specialists. Rest assured that they will all be delicious. Eat them out of hand. Make pies and crisps, even apple sauce. The results will astound you.
Apple stands usually have other delicious products for sale, too. One of the best is fresh-pressed cider. The taste is incomparable. Freshly baked pies, jelly, and other treats await you as well. Some of the farmers keep their own bees to aid in pollination and then harvest the honey-one more product that is local and farm-fresh, healthful and heavenly.
Again, the Internet can help you plan your autumn field trip in search of apples and more. Here is a site with a list covering all of Southern California: allaboutapples.com/orchard/ca04.htm.
And, by the way, apples and pumpkins make some delicious pairings in the kitchen. But that column belongs to several other writers.