- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Sam Manspile and Jerry Ruley are stirring apple butter in huge copper pots over open-wood fires protected from the cool rain by a large canopy.

They keep a steady rhythm with their long-handled wooden paddles as the thick brown butter bubbles in the cauldrons and the wood crackles as it burns. The air is thick with the odor of smoke and spices.

It’s the annual Winchester Apple Harvest Festival held in September (this year on Sept. 20 and 21) in Winchester, Va., and by mid-afternoon, the two volunteer firefighters from Lexington are in the 12th hour of the slow, painstaking process of turning 15 bushels of fresh apples, sugar and spices into 44 gallons of apple butter. The wear of a sleepless night shows on their tired faces with each stroke.

“The only thing worse than the heat is the smoke, sometimes. You can’t get away from it,” Mr. Ruley says.

Nearby, other groups nurture their own concoctions in a contest to see whose apple butter is the best.

The festival, now in its 29th year, is just one of many in the orchard country of the Shenandoah Valley that preserve the fall tradition of making apple butter by hand — a tradition born of necessity in the days before refrigeration.

The northern Shenandoah Valley is one of the biggest apple-producing areas of the region. The tradition of making apple butter follows the harvest, which begins in August and extends through the beginning of November.

Boiling the apples into a thick paste mixed with sugar and spices made them easier to keep.

“It was a way for them to preserve their apples for the winter,” says Lynne Phillips of Stribling Orchard, a Fauquier County apple grower.

Social events were organized around the kettles of boiling apples, which needed to be constantly stirred to keep from burning. Many members of a family, church congregation or community would pitch in to prepare the apples and can the finished product.

“Making apple butter has always been a community, or sort of a family reunion, type of experience,” says Beth Curtin, director of this weekend’s Apple Butter Festival in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., where the tradition was passed down from German and Pennsylvania Dutch settlers in the area.

For Mr. Manspile, Mr. Ruley and the other members of the Effinger Volunteer Fire Department, the tradition is also a way to raise money for the organization — by selling the 1,200 gallons of apple butter produced at $3.50 a pint. The fire department has been making and selling its apple butter at the Winchester festival since 1978.

It’s also a source of pride. Those who cling to the traditional way of making apple butter sneer at what they say is the thin, weak taste of commercially made spreads.

“Things like this you gotta do the old-time way,” Mr. Manspile says, inviting passersby to join in stirring and guiding them into a rhythm as the paddle moves through the steaming butter.

• • •

A week later, on a hilltop about 35 miles south of Winchester, members of the Leeds Episcopal Church in Markham, Va., are making their own batch of apple butter, as they have for 20 years.

Church members gather each year at Stribling Orchard to make apple butter and raise money for charity. This year, their goal is to raise $5,000 toward the building of a Habitat for Humanity home in their community.

“We get much more from this than we give,” adds Anne Davis, her hands calloused from hours of sitting on an empty crate, “snitting” — peeling, coring and slicing the apples. “You can’t have no peel, no core and no hard spots,” she explains.

Mrs. Davis and other church members have already been snitting the apples for nearly a week. When that’s done, other church members haul the ingredients, the pots and some tents up to the festival grounds on a hilltop overlooking the orchard for an all-night cooking party.

The result is 900 to 1,000 pints of fresh apple butter for sale to festival-goers.

“If we’re lucky, we won’t have to carry any of it back to the church,” Mrs. Davis says.

There seem to be as many recipes for apple butter as there are cooks. The recipes are passed down by word of mouth and by example as successive generations pitch in together to make it.

“Different makers have their different ways,” Ms. Curtin says. “Each kettle can be a little bit different.”

One constant is the use of a copper pot, which seems best for cooking the apples, she says. Between each batch, the pots are wiped clean with fresh bread to soak up the thickest, choicest butter before being scoured.

Another is the hardwood fire, which burns slowly and helps prevent the butter from sticking to the pot or boiling over.

But just about everything else — from the type of apples used to the method of stirring the bubbling mass of boiling apple butter — varies with the weather, the time of year and the cook.

“The thing about apple butter is you have to have somebody teach you. There’s no way I can tell you — I have to show you,” Winchell Chung says as he supervises the preparation of a batch for the Leeds church festival, reaching down occasionally to throw another log on the fire from a large woodpile nearby.

Mr. Chung learned the craft from older church members. Their recipe includes using a mix of different types of apples, which “really makes the stuff come out wonderful,” he says, “as long as they aren’t moldy or wormy.” He says apple varieties with crisp texture, such as the Winesap, seem to work better.

The choice of apples used in apple butter depends on what is ripe for the time of year it’s made, Ms. Phillips says. Traditionally, apple butter was made in the fall when the cool, crisp air offset the fire’s heat.

The sweet Golden Delicious apples are available in September. By November, more tart apple varieties such as the Winesap and the Stayman are available for use.

Ms. Phillips says apples picked up off the ground are the best because they are the ripest and have the most sugar. The orchard donated windfall apples to the church to make their butter.

“A lot of it is the apples, how to cook it to get all the water out of it, how much sugar to put into it,” Patsy Landes of Lexington says.

Seasoning the apples also is a matter of taste — some cooks use sugar, while others use cider or molasses to sweeten the mix. Spices used include cloves, cinnamon and allspice, in powder or liquid form.

“Seasoning the apple butter is probably about three-quarters of what makes it good,” Mrs. Davis says.

Seasoning also is usually the last step to the long process of turning ripe apples into the thick, brown spread before it is poured and sealed into Mason jars for sale. Most sell before the hot butter cools in the jar — it’s much easier to buy than to make, says Leeds church member Robert Cain, watching the fruit of a sleepless night’s labor disappear.

“You can do it,” he says of buying, “but it’s not the same thing.”

Do it yourself

Making apple butter the traditional way is a difficult, time-consuming ritual of fall that usually required a large family, church congregation or community effort to accomplish.

In the 1848 edition of her popular cookbook, Eliza Leslie said, “Making it in small quantities is not worthwhile,” and many of today’s experienced apple butter cooks agree.

“You can do it, but it’s not the same thing,” said Robert Cain, after a sleepless night of stirring a boiling pot of apple butter to raise money for the Leeds Episcopal Church in Markham, Va., at its annual festival Sept. 27.

In fact, the official recipe used by the Effinger Volunteer Fire Department, whose members toiled for hours over their cauldrons at the Winchester Apple Butter Festival on Sept. 20, calls for 75 bushels of apples, 600 pounds of sugar, 2 pounds of cinnamon and 2 ounces of cloves.

But just in case you can’t wait for the next festival, here is a recipe to try at home from the Virginia Apple Growers, a trade group:

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 cups apple cider

1/2 teaspoon ground clovesCombine apples and cider in slow cooker. Cover and cook on low 8 hours or until apples are soft. Puree in food sieve or food mill. Return mixture to pot; add sugar and spices. Cover and cook on low 1 to 2 hours. For a thicker apple butter, uncover, and cook on high until desired consistency is reached, stirring occasionally. Store on refrigerator or pour hot apple butter into hot canning jars, leaving -inch headspace. Adjust caps for canning. Process in boiling water bath 10 minutes.

Best apples

The apple you’re eating today is likely very different from the ones enjoyed 100 years ago.

Changing tastes and mass marketing have a strong impact on which varieties of apples are produced and have shrunk the number of varieties from 19,000 in 1900 to about 7,000 today.

Many of the antique varieties don’t have the right look for the supermarket, but they are much tastier if today’s consumers would give them a chance, says Lynne Phillips of Stribling Orchard in Markham, Va. Stribling grows and sells many of the antique varieties, such as the Winesap, Stayman and York Imperial, to customers who come and pick them straight from the trees.

“We prefer the older varieties because they seem to have a better flavor,” she says.

The tart, firm Winesap was a leading variety in the United States until the 1950s, but the larger, softer Red Delicious is much more common in supermarkets today.

Ms. Phillips says the reason is many consumers pick apples for looks rather than taste.

“People don’t realize that this is what an apple should look like,” she says, describing the lopsided shape of a York Imperial, a late-season apple that some say is the sweetest.

The Smokehouse, a tart variety from the 1830s related to the Granny Smith, and early varieties of the Golden Delicious often show brown patches, known as russeting, on the skin, deterring consumers, she says.

“A lot of the old-timers say that if you have an apple with russeting, it has the best flavor,” she says.

The Tydaman Red, a relative of the McIntosh apple, is “probably one of the best applesauce apples to make” but ripens in the August heat — too early for peak apple-picking season, Ms. Phillips says.

Festivals celebrate the apple, apple butter

October 11 - 12

Berkeley Springs Apple Butter Festival: Thirtieth annual festival throughout the town of Berkeley Springs (Morgan County), W.Va. Apple-butter-making all day in the town square. Parade, apple-butter- and pie-making contests, music, games, exhibits. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 11, noon-5 p.m. Oct. 12. Call 800/447-8797 or see www.berkeleysprings .com/apple

Graves Mountain Apple Harvest Festival: Graves Mountain Lodge, Route 670, Syria (Madison County), Va. Apple butter, Bruns-wick stew cooked in kettles over open fires. Bluegrass music, cloggers, arts and crafts, hayrides, horseback rides. Apples for picking, or select your own from the apple bins at the picnic pavilion. Lunch available. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 11, 12. Admission, parking free. 540/923-4231 or see www.gravesmountain.com/appleharvest.htm

October 18 - 19

Drumheller’s Apple Harvest and Apple Butter Festival: Drumheller’s Orchard, 1130 Drumheller Orchard Lane, Lovingston (Nelson County), Va. Apple butter making 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 18 only. Other activities — crafts, corn maze, hayrides, pumpkin picking, country music — Oct. 18, 19. Admission, parking free. 434/263-5036.

Flippin-Seaman Apple Butter Making Festival: Flippin-Seaman packing shed, 5529 Crabtree Falls Highway, Tyro (Nelson County), Va. Apple butter made in copper kettles. Crafters, homemade food. Fresh cider, other products for sale. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Oct. 18. 434/277-5824.

Graves Mountain Apple Harvest Festival: Graves’ Mountain Lodge Inc., Route 670, Syria (Madison County), Va. Program identical to that of Oct. 11 and 12. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 18, 19. Admission, parking free. 540/923-4231 or see www.gravesmountain.com/appleharvest.htm

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