Apple-picking time in Maine normally starts around Sept. 9, but the season has begun already this year. When apples ripen, Jolie, my intrepid companion, and I spend part of an afternoon, picking Cortland, McIntosh and sometimes Golden Delicious.

If families rank apple picking as traditional, they need no urging from me. However, if readers have never done it, they can start this September, beginning with finding either commercial or old, abandoned orchards.

Mount Nebo Orchard in a very rural area of Mount Vernon suits Jolie and me, an old-fashioned commercial orchard on a side hill. And, no, this endorsement has no ulterior motive other than sending folks to a grand picking spot. I don’t know the owner’s name nor does he know mine.

This autumn ritual often occurs on windy days with dark cumulous clouds scudding across the sky, creating occasional overcast. The darker light and cooler temperatures suggest more of fall and less of summer.

Crisp, dry air and sun make most folks feel more like harvesting, but in some years, our picking day coincides with glaring sun and humidity. We definitely prefer weather with a fall touch.

Soon after the harvest, days pass with kitchen fragrances that New Englanders from the 1600s would know for sure — apple dishes redolent with cinnamon and nutmeg to tantalize the nose.

Years ago, I pounded central-Maine ruffed grouse and woodcock covers with a Lab and setters, hitting alder-and-poplar tangles that hid abandoned orchards. These apple trees are vanishing, victims of old age or development, but places with luscious fruit and no sprayed toxins still exist. Any scabs or bugs on wild apples indicate fewer toxins on the fruit.

Abandoned orchards once grew everywhere, and pickers could find common varieties such as Cortland, McIntosh, Baldwin, Northern Spy, Yellow Transparent, Golden Russet, Rhode Island Greening, Granny Smith, Wolf River and more. They grew free for the taking or for a simple request of landowners. Yellow transparent apples are uncommon in stores now.

I love eating raw Yellow Transparent and Cortland, but nothing beats sour Granny Smiths for pies. Cortland wins close second as a pie apple.

Wolf River evolved from Alexander seedlings, the latter a huge, hardy Russian-inspired apple. Wolf River won the popularity contest, though, a delightfully flavored, giant apple and my absolute favorite variety for eating. This preference needs no explanation, either. Wolf River raw or cooked taste great, and grouse really like them, too.

My working knowledge of apples occasionally impresses people, but I came by it simply enough. My father could identify myriad apples and taught me. Then, serious upland-bird hunting polished my education.

Upland-bird-hunting fascinated me so much that I wrote a book on ruffed grouse, woodcock and ring-necked pheasant, but the original idea for the book started with learning apple varieties that grouse preferred.

Grouse eat most any apple but fancy certain ones like Yellow Transparent, an ultra-popular people choice in the 1800s and first half of the 1900s. Knowing grouse liked them added to my daily grouse limit.

In my childhood and early adulthood, abandoned orchards east of Augusta had enough Yellow Transparent trees to make this king of upland birds happy, and I keyed on those trees for shooting grouse and picking fruit.

Where I grew up in Maine, apple picking from abandoned orchards had created a quaint folklore. Folks made “wild” applesauce from apple varieties — say two or more blending choices. Each cook often guarded a recipe that they swore created the best applesauce.

Wild applesauce accompanied my main dishes such as baked grouse, sautéed woodcock breasts, steak Diane (with venison instead of beef), roast venison haunch and so many more, especially chops from homegrown pigs.

In the past, I’ve enjoyed game meals with wild applesauce and fresh Brussels sprouts, squash and potatoes from my gardens. French wine with crystal, china, linen napkins and candlelight complemented the feast.

These days, it pleases me to see more people grow gardens, pick berries and fruit, eat fish and game, shop at farm markets and even raise critters for food and eggs.

This trend offers positive proof that more and more folks are looking toward the earth and away from box stores — a definite trend of turning back to the land.


Ken Allen, a writer, editor and photographer, can be reached at [email protected]

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