I’ve never been much of a country girl, finding the actuality of the country, with its attendant wasps, ragweed and unreliable weather, seemingly very far removed from the pastoral ideal. Still, this week the air has been so clear and transparent and the sunlight so bright and limpid that I found myself yearning to experience the rustic charms of the “vie de campagne.” Not wanting to drive for hours, I happened on a place called Puddicombe Farms, just down the highway in Winona, where my autumn craving for really fresh apples could be satisfied, as well as my dream of a country idyll; it was a very pleasant excursion, albeit a rather tame adventure.
The Puddicombe estate is a working 300 acre fruit farm that has belonged to the Puddicombe family since 1797. It stands at the foot of the Niagara escarpment, set off from the highway by a long, tree-lined driveway. There is a shop and a barn and a funny and charming woman named Holly met me at the shop and acted as my tour guide (She mentioned that she had come to help out Mrs.Puddicombe fourteen years ago and was still there.) The farm has a very long tradition. The family were originally cattle farmers and became fruit farmers in the 1900’s. In 1940 the first vineyard was planted.
From September to the end of Thanksgiving weekend, the farm is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on the weekends you can trek out to the orchard and pick your own apples from the trees. In one of those incomprehensible botanical miracles, the trees are miniature trees — so no ladders are needed — but they grow regular sized apples. With an eye to aiding tourists and the arboreally challenged (like myself), the various types of apple trees are labelled; there are Empires, McIntoshes, Royal Galas, Delicious, and so on. There was lots of fruit hanging on the trees and the orchard looked very orderly with the windfalls all picked up.
It occurred to me that this would be a wonderful place to bring young children to provide them with a painless lesson about how fruit actually grows on trees and doesn’t just appear polished and waxed on the supermarket shelves. In fact, the whole farm has been organized to act as an ideal venue for children. In addition to the apple picking, there is a children’s play area which includes a playground with a large sand box and play house, and a small but tantalizing zoo with a rather strange but appealing assortment of animals: On the day that I was there, I saw a goat who was sunning himself on what looked like a sort of high diving platform, two disdainful peacocks, and an emu that shyly fluttered its eyelashes at me. A resident pig was having his nap and refused to reveal himself. There is also a little tootling train that takes a half hour tour around the property.
Of more interest to grownups, there are wine tastings and wine for sale in the shop. The farm became a working winery when Jim Warren, a winemaster from Stoney Ridge Winery, came on board and the very first award-winning ice wine, outside of Germany, was produced here. But the original winery soon outgrew the farm and was moved ten years ago and subsequently sold to Stoney Ridge. There is still is wine made on the premises, however. Lindsay Puddicombe, an 8th generation member of the family, studied at Guelph University and Niagara College to become a winemaker and the farm still produces whites, reds and rosés, as well as a wide variety of fruit wines and cider. The fruit wines are made from real fruit — not just concentrate added to an alcoholic base — and the flavour is aggressively fruity. There is also a bakery with homemade pies and preserves and jams and jellies for sale. Holly says that people often come on the weekend, spend an hour getting there, pick some fruit, have lunch in the cafe, take part in the wine tastings while the children play in the zoo and the playground, go for a little ride on the train and have a delightful and not too exhausting day to remember.
And yes, you could spend some real money here. There is a $2 admission price and a $10 fee for the ten pound bag for apples. And you’re probably going to want to buy some wine and something homemade from the bakeshop. But the parking is free — and so is the sunshine and fresh air.
And here’s a recipe that will make good use of those ever-so-fresh, crispy apples.
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. all purpose flour
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup water
1 cup quick-cooking oats
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup butter, melted
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C)
2. Place the sliced apples in a 9 X 13 inch pan. Mix the white sugar, 1 tbsp. flour and ground cinnamon together and sprinkle over the apples. Pour water evenly over all.
3. Combine the oats, 1 cup flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda and melted butter together. Crumble evenly over the apple mixture.
4. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.