Last weekend we had one of those picture-perfect, postcard-worthy days that scream quaint Americana. Like a Christmas-in-Connecticut, except it was early fall in Chicago. Or rather, and this is the whole point, it wasn’t Chicago. My husband and I packed up our dog and a few snacks—just in case we broke down before we got to our destined food orgy—and headed out of the city north to Wisconsin.
In Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, really just over the border from northern Illinois, are two places that we make our annual pilgrimage towards come crisp days in September. We used to think that Oriole Spring Orchard and Harvest Time Orchard—down the road from each other on 128th street in Twin Lakes—formed a single operation. It turns out instead that they were initially a single family orchard which split off between two of the children in the 1960s. (This I discovered from Harvest Time’s website. Click here to get exact location and other information: http://www.myharvesttime.com/page/about/aboutus.html)
In any case, we visit both and are devoted to each for different reasons. Oriole Springs seems to be a no-nonsense orchard. No website, infrequent pick-up of the phone even (!), and little frills. Their concession to technological advances (this just in recent years) is to allow customers to give email addresses for a mailing list instead of having to provide physical mailing addresses. Harvest Time, on the other hand, has a website, a facebook page with frequent updates, etc. Oriole Springs has a massive orchard with labyrinthine turns between different types of apple trees. Harvest Time recently started its own apple-picking in their orchard, but this operation is perhaps better known and visited for their amazing cider donuts, a smokehouse, and a fun atmosphere for the kids.
If you are like 90% of apple-lovers, Honey Crisps might be your favorite apple variety. (If you haven’t tasted one, it will soon become your favorite apple.) If that is the case, you need to plan on finding out the exact date that they will first be available for picking each year. It’s already too late this year, but you will need to call the orchard by September 1 next year to find out when you should make the trek up to Wisconsin. Honey Crisps and my second favorites Galas tend to be ready fairly early in the season—usually no later than mid-September.
If you aim to pick Honey Crisps, you need to start from Chicago soon after dawn to make sure that you get to the orchard no later than 9:00am (when they open). You will see that miles of cars have been sitting there, drivers awaiting the opening of the orchard so that they could get their hands on these apples. The lines notwithstanding, when farmers do NOT experience a too-warm spring and a return of frost as midwest orchards did this year, it’s still possible to get a respectable number of apples by arriving at 9:00am without waiting for hours in the dark.
This year, we knew that practically nobody would get to pick Honey Crisps anyway, so that liberated us to take our schedule more leisurely. Jonathans were available last weekend, so we went up to pick half a bushel for $22. (That’s a bargain since you can fill up that half bushel to bursting.) We picked a few Gold Delicious since they were available as well, but we are not huge fans of these since their texture can tend toward mealy. After we drove through the maze-like orchard and paid for our purchase, we went further west on 128th St. to Harvest Time.
Tip for new-comers: Once you park in the overflow parking lot (most likely), run—do not walk—to the long line to order your donuts. Unfortunately, when donuts are going to be at their freshest and coming right out the fryer, the lines are enormous and—frankly—a little outrageous. But the flipside is that shorter lines often mean that donuts you receive will not be freshest. Sure, they were prepared that morning, but that’s not the same as getting very hot and special cider donuts straight out of the fryer. At $1 per each greasy donut, they are not cheap. We try to make waiting in line worthwhile by getting a dozen (for $10). Our dozen usually consists of 3 vanilla frosted with coconut, 3 chocolate frosted with coconut, 3 cinnamon and sugar, and 3 plain.
Once we have our dozen donuts safely in our hands, we explore the rest of the orchard. The Cider Barn is fun to visit since you can often see fresh cider being pressed. They give out samples too!
The petting area has Nigerian Goats which you can feed with a $1 bag of feed (self-serve).
Then make sure that you get a number and stand in line at the Smokehouse to get a variety of cheeses and meats. Our usual order: 1 lb. Nueske’s ham; 1 lb. Nueske’s bacon; 1 lb. smoked Baby Swiss; 2 smoked Pfefferjager sausages (makes a great hiking snack).
You’re still not done with your visit out to the country. If you drive south down Zarnstorf Rd., before you get to 173 (Rosecrans), you should see on your left side a sign for “Fresh Eggs.” Turn right onto a driveway of a ranch-style house opposite that sign and park. If you walk into the house from the side door, you can purchase—on an honor system of self-serve and pay—some very fresh eggs. There is a sign that says, “Smile. You’re on candid camera.” I should hope that you would want to be honest regardless of the sign…
Once you are done with your rural outing, you have a final important step. Go home and bake yourself the yummiest and freshest apple pie!