An Internet search for apple orchards in Minnesota provides astounding results. The Minnesota Apple Grower's Association lists over 100 different farms, but some of the most esteemed are just down the road from St. Olaf.
On a quest to find the best apple orchard in Northfield and the surrounding area, I started my mission at Fireside Orchard and Gardens, just off Highway 19. From the start it became clear that people in the "apple business" are friendly, respectful folks. Todd Harvey, who helps run Fireside, wasn't afraid to talk up his apple cider, which was chosen by Kowalski's, a grocery store in the Twin Cities, to be one of their fall staples. On first taste, there is definitely something different about Fireside's cider than the kind you might find at Cub. It really tasted like it came from the bushels of apples scattered around me in the cider making room and didn't have that common taste heavy on corn syrup and cinnamon.
If cider isn't enough of a draw, Fireside has apple-spice doughnuts. They were the reason a businessman from Chicago, who I met at the cash register, had driven all the way from the Windy City. Delicious and cheap, the doughnuts might have been the best part of my visit to Fireside. Besides having a wide variety of apples and the opportunity to pick your own, Harvey appreciates all the customers who come by.
"We really love the college crowd," Harvey said. "It's a big part of our business"
Next I trekked north on Highway 3 to Nelson's Apple Farm in the neighboring town of Webster, where I met Ross and Karen Nelson. This place boasts a seven acre corn maze with a mile and half walk-thru for the true autumn adventurer. But better than the corn maze are the Nelson's caramel apples. They claimed they were famous at farmer's markets across the Twin Cities, but I was a little skeptical. Oh how wrong I was. Perhaps the best caramel apple I had ever tasted, I wished I had bought seven more before I left. Karen Nelson credits Nelson's success to her husband's methods.
"He really knows how to grow apples," she said. "We're fussy about quality."
They speak the truth. In fact, eating one of those caramel apples on a hay wagon ride might be some sort of fall-time heaven.
Finally, my expedition came to an end at Applewood Orchard in Lakeville, where I had my first Honey Crisp apple courtesy of Kathy and Mark Parranto. The Parantos' opened Applewood with the idea to give their sons a more rural, hardworking childhood. It is one of the newer orchards, but it's obvious that Parranto loves it.
"The people you deal with are the best," she said.
The Parrantos abide by the principle that an apple a day really works. With apples like the one I ate, I wouldn't mind abiding by it either. Even though the Honey Crisp I had was second pickings, it was totally tasty.
Applewood also has your standard wagon rides and pick-your-own features, and they grow berries and pumpkins like Nelson's. But despite being geared toward school tours, Mark Parranto may have a new draw for college students. He is working on the development of hard cider, which may be available soon.
So the quest for the best apple orchard didn't exactly have the juicy competition I wished for, but each one had its own star attraction. So if you take my advice and find yourself back at St. Olaf with a bag of apples, I've included my mom's recipe for "Dorm Kitchen Apple Pie," a guaranteed sweet stress reliever.