Call me old-fashioned, but isn’t there a simple satisfaction in unplugging from your iPhone overlord and picking out the perfect apple or 12? For me, it’s right up there with picking out that first, ceremonious fall pumpkin for your front porch, a tactile reminder of the changing seasons (even if the weather is 100-plus degrees, as it was the week I went apple adventuring with my very pregnant friend).
With a growing belly in need of fresh apple goodness, my hungry companion agreed: When you find the right specimen—perhaps tart and green for baking, or sweet and crisp for snacking—you just know it in your gut. Then, you do that little apple picking dance: polish the fruit on your shirt, hold it up to the light, then crunch into the experience head-on, allowing the juices to dribble where they may. This is simply how it’s done in Avila Valley, dear!
Why the big fuss? Not many foods can make you feel like a kid again, even if for just a brief moment (who didn’t eat apples and peanut butter after school?). And so, with this wholesome quest at heart, we set out for a drive up and over Prefumo Canyon, where golden hills and slivers of azure Morro Bay waters eventually gave way to shady apple orchards, peacocks, and lazy bumble bees.
I could have sworn I caught a magical whiff of salty sea air as we arrived at Gopher Glen Apple Farm, an institution around these parts (we also visited nearby SLO Creek Farms, featured on page 44, and See Canyon Fruit Ranch for good measure).
My pulse quickened as I took in the scene: More than a dozen varieties of apples were on display before us in the humble barn, which also featured baskets of perfectly ripe peaches, jars of local honey, and a fridge full of apple cider pressed onsite.
A young farmhand immediately started carving up half moons of green, red, and orange fruit, never failing to give a bit of background on each variety. We eagerly gulped them down like happy horses.
This is an experience that Raven Smith knows well; it’s always “apple season” for her and hubby Jake. Together with Jake’s family, they own and operate the 50-acre farm as well as manage about another 50 acres near SLO Creek Farm.
“That means we often have about 15 varieties ripening at once,” Smith said during a break from farm work. “We also have some special apples that we developed ourselves. Our late founder, John DeVincenzo, was a bit of a scientist.”
Actually, DeVincenzo was a dentist, but he loved to tinker with Mother Nature. As the story goes, he’d find varieties from all over the country and bring them back to his little Avila farm, which grew in popularity. To this day, bring up his name at any apple farm and you’ll hear about a creative man with a big heart.
“He had a lot of fun with it, and he kept going, developing varieties till the day he died,” Smith said. “If someone in the Avila community couldn’t afford braces for their kids, he would invite them to work on the farm and trade labor.”
Take her advice and try one of their most famous hybrids, the Mohawk, which you cannot get anywhere else on this big blue ball of Earth. It boasts a maroon stripe down the middle and, with its sweet-tart balance, it’s plain good for eating.
The farm’s Heaven Sent variety is also a standout, named after DeVincenzo’s late wife (it was her favorite snack).
“It’s a light crisp apple, mostly sweet but with a bit of tartness,” Smith said. “The flesh is a really dark color; it’s our most popular apple by far.”
Although this kind of apple fandom is the purpose behind what the Smiths do (they love it when customers come in and ask for an apple by name), it takes year-round work to make it happen. Each winter, the trees are pruned; after bud break, the couple fertilizes the soil and culls the fruit to ensure optimum flavor and size.
Usually around the first couple of weeks of July, the team starts picking the first ripening varieties (this year, apples ripened in June). From August through October, anywhere from five to 20 varieties are ready to come off the trees, creating quite the project.
Come November, only a handful of varieties will be available, so my best advice is to go now, while the season is popping off. Oh, and be sure to grab a half gallon of fresh cider, featuring a mélange of ripe apples off the farm (think of it like a field blend of varietals).
Every time I take a sip, I can’t help but think of all the hard work that went into those trees: first from DeVincenzo’s legacy and now the Smith family’s toil.
“There is no separation from our work life and private life,” Smith said of her career and passion. “But we get to be creative; we get to decide what we want to grow and sell. From the time my husband and I were both kids, we knew we wanted to be farmers. When people come and tell us how good our apples are, that’s the whole point.”
When that happens, the Smiths know that they’ve got job security. They can keep doing what they do best: growing the kind of apples that have groupies.
“We don’t have to do anything to sell them,” Smith said. “They really do sell themselves.”