Apple Notes: A Night and a Day at Shacksbury Graft Camp
I only have fond memories of camp: time spent roughing it outdoors, spooky stories around the campfire, care packages from mom filled with Pepperidge Farm cookies, chewing gum, and a couple of Mad Libs. Also, new friends. Camp was fun. I loved camp.
A couple of weeks back when I was battling the symptoms of cabin fever (specifically eating hunks of cheddar cheese to the Kamakawiwo’ole Spotify playlist), I received an invitation via email from Luke Schmuecker to attend Shacksbury Cider’s Graft Camp. Let me break this down for you:
Shacksbury Cider—The local-to-us cidery that’s handcrafting some of the best ciders in the country.
Graft—The act of joining two plants together; as it applies to apples, taking a portion of a stem with leaf buds (a scion) and attaching it to a tree stock in order to grow a desired variety.
And camp—See last sentence of first paragraph.
The Shacksbury version of camp, as I could gather from the itinerary, didn’t involve any camping, but would incorporate the very best of two other “ings”: Adulting—more specifically, consuming exceptional food and drink in the company of professionals who give a damn about how said food and drink are produced—and Vermonting—in this case, venturing out in the unpredictable March weather replete with ice, mud, and still-chilly temps in order to . . . wait for it . . . explore a vital aspect of Vermont’s culture and landscape: apples. That is, apple trees, apple orchards, and apple cider—the hard kind.
Also, I’d finally wrap my head around grafting, which I knew was necessary but could never understand why. And how often as an adult do I get to partake in hands-on learning? Not very. At the risk of sounding like an old crab, I miss going to school and kick myself for not appreciating my student status when I had it. (Insert finger wag at younger self.)
Prior to Graft Camp, it was made clear that over the three-day event we were free to come and go as we pleased. Noting that Cara Chigazola Tobin, the James Beard Award Semifinalist and chef at our new-obsession-of-a-restaurant, Honey Road, would be serving dinner, I immediately booked a babysitter. We were set for a Sunday afternoon tour of Sunrise Orchards followed by dinner, and for Monday’s grafting workshop at Windfall Orchard—which I didn’t realize at the time would include a sumptuous lunch by another professional chef. More on that later.
Graft Camp, Day 1
2 PM Meet at Sunrise Orchards
With my trusty 7” x 5” notebook and pen in hand, and my better half wielding his Canon camera, we set out for Cornwall, Vermont. After entering the pale yellow 1800s farmhouse at Sunrise Orchards, and finding a cozy living-room scene with a crackling fire, I had to promptly set my notebook aside to take a champagne flute of Twig—a Shacksbury wild-foraged cider made with apples from Twig Farm—with one hand, and eat off the cheese board with the other. Let’s pause again to break down the goodness of the local mammalian treats laid before us.
Spring Brook Farm’s Ashbrook, a raw cow’s milk cheese in the style of Morbier that is way creamy and better than any Morbier I’ve ever had.
A brick of the lauded Shelburne Farms two-year-aged cheddar.
An entire wheel of the OBE-inducing Old Goat by Twig Farm (where those wild-foraged apples in my cider were from).
Between bites and sips, we met the rest of the crew from Shacksbury, including co-owner David Dolginow, who would be leading us on a tour. We also began acquainting ourselves with other attendees—Tom Perry, the cheese sales manager from Shelburne Farms; Mary Tuthill, head cheesemonger of the Mad River Taste Place; Courtney Schwamb, who used to run the tasting room at Jester King in Austin, Texas, and is now working to open the Yokefellow Brewery; her partner, brewer Jacob Piland from another Austin brewery called Blue Owl; a young woman from a high-end Soho hotel I forget the name of because where did I put my notebook; two reps from Momofuku; and a handful of cider diehards from up and down the East Coast. After my first glass of Twig, I located my 7” x 5”-er just in time to head outside with our fellow campers.
4 PM Orchard Walk
Sunrise Orchard sweeps across 200 acres in the Champlain Valley. Standing in the dirt driveway facing east apple trees rolled out before us against the backdrop of the Green Mountains, peaks still covered in snow. Most of the trees we were seeing were of the variety that produce popular “dessert” apples, like Macintosh, Cortlands, and Empire—in other words, the ones you see on the supermarket shelves. The “heritage” apple trees used for hard-cider making, planted solely for Shacksbury’s production, were in the opposite direction. So there we headed, towards the late-winter sun sinking over the Adirondacks. The farthest corner of the orchard was, in my view, the most special. A plot designated for Shacksbury’s Lost Apple Project. In 2014 Shacksbury began foraging for wild apples from the Champlain Valley and using scions (those year-old stems with leaf buds) from the trees to graft onto existing trees. And they get to name the new-old varieties, often by the location of where they were found—Old Sawmill Road, Animal Farm, and so on. I scribbled down notes as best I could, losing dexterity by the second due to the early evening chill. David’s tour wasn’t lacking in fun facts and casual conversation. Here’s a taste of what I learned that evening:
Every apple seed produces a unique apple. (Let that sink in.) Grafting is just about the only way to ensure you’ll grow a certain apple variety.
Hard cider used to be the most popular beverage in America prior to Prohibition.
Cider apples are characterized by their tannins, which give them depth, the ability to age, and a higher value. They’re also called “spitters” because spit you might if you take a bite.
Of all the orchards named Sunrise, Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall has the best of them all—this being fact according to Dave. And he should know after having worked there for four years.
6 PM Dinner with Honey Road at Sunrise
Navigating the mud and ice, we looped back around to the farmhouse, the scent of garlic and spices spilling out the door as we shuffled in. The kitchen island was now covered in dishes set out by Chef Cara. Admittedly I was starstruck, but I still managed to tell her how much I appreciated her high-end take on Middle-Eastern food, qualifying my statement by sharing that my father is Lebanese. She had just returned from a trip to Lebanon and so began a brief exchange on our favorite spots to visit, including an ancient olive grove producing Chef Cara’s olive oil of choice, which was used in every dish on the table.
Talk about Lebanon had me welling up with nostalgia. Something about being surrounded by people who felt so passionate about simple, elemental things like apples, cheese, and olives from my father-land made me feel very much at home. Maybe a little too at home as I loaded up my glass with more cider and my plate with some of everything: muhammara, lamb-stuffed dolmas with spiced yogurt, crispy potatoes, duck legs with sumac, and hummus that was so authentic the chick-pea skins must have been removed (a painstaking step in hummus perfection). Our meal seamlessly transitioned us into the next portion of the evening, the 8 PM Fireside Hangout but, with the babysitter on the clock, we slipped out the backdoor to get home by nine.
GRAFT CAMP, DAY 2
8AM Rise and Shine! Brio Coffee and Breakfast
We missed this part. Instead, we were home drinking Brio Coffee. Living locally has its perks.
10AM Grafting Workshop at Windfall Orchard
Windfall Orchard comes up on Route 30 faster than you can say “There it is!” And so we had to make a U-turn. Three times. Because, as it turns out, the previous evening had been a little too fun and the coffee was just kicking in. Our eight-year-old daughter had to tag along because she woke up “sick” and couldn’t go to school. I assured her she couldn’t spend the day watching TV (I resisted the ol’ finger wag) and would be coming with us to Graft Camp, an excellent educational opportunity for a Vermont kid who can put away eight apples in one sitting. Besides, the camp crew seemed like they’d be cool with it and, in Vermont, kids are generally welcomed.
Windfall is not a wholesale orchard. It’s tiny. Only three acres. But on those three acres, there are more than 100 varieties of apples grown, which is quite extraordinary. What’s also extraordinary is the panoramic view of the Green Mountains that had me wondering if sunrises here weren’t also “the best.” The small-scale operation at Windfall is dedicated to growing high-end varieties strictly for the hard stuff. They produce award-winning ciders including their Ice Cider—a versatile dessert wine made from thirty different apple varieties.
Dave introduced us to orchardist and chef, Brad Koehler by stating, “This guy knows how to live,” and Brad pretty much took it from there, sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm on many subjects with the group. He spoke about the history of apples in the Northeast, his property, horticulture, orchard practices, food politics—all with the deftness and ease of a pro.
Brad owns and operates Windfall Orchard with his wife, Dr. Amy Trubek, professor of food studies at UVM and author of the book The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. The couple purchased the property in 2002 and have been working to incorporate heritage varieties onto existing trees. “We have a beautiful engine in place to produce lots of fruit,” explained Brad, referring to the old rootstocks, many of them 50-year-old Macintosh trees now producing Baldwins, a variety once very popular in the region before Prohibition. Compared to the ubiquitous Macintosh, which is worth about $5 a bushel, a heritage variety like the Baldwin is worth upwards of $20 per bushel.
A portion of Shacksbury’s Lost Apples are also grown on Brad’s property. Down in the far northeast corner of the orchard, we met the Shacksbury tree, a veritable Frankenstein with more than ten varieties growing on it. Here we examined the joints where scions had been attached to the original stock, becoming part of the tree.
Though mid-March is still on the cusp of early, once the thaw-by-day, freeze-by-night cycle of sugaring season begins, it’s time to graft. A more accurate rule of thumb being when it’s just warm enough to work without gloves. And it was. Just. Brad laid his grafting tools on the ground. In the mix were some antiques, which he’d discovered in the basement of the farmhouse. The hand-forged iron stood out among the rest. How many thousands of times had those tools been held and hammered upon, I wondered. Spencer, another orchard expert who works for Brad, stepped in to show us how he was going to attach a scion of a Baldwin onto one of the old Macintosh trees.
How to Graft.
Cut a scion from the desired apple variety.
Whittle the tip into a wedge and then place in your mouth to keep the cut end of the scion moist.
Select the rootstock.
Make a horizontal incision into the stock until the cambium splits up both sides of the branch about an inch.
Insert scions so that the cambium lines up with that of the stock.
Seal any exposed fresh-cut wood with green putty stuff.
Cross your fingers and hope the graft takes.
Grafting is harder than these guys make it look . . .
. . . although I wouldn’t know because I was too chicken to risk botching a graft in front of the group. I observed a few other campers try their hand at the splitting, inserting, and sealing and they did very well. My guess is after a couple of hundred tries you could bang them out pretty quickly.
Brad had been in and out of the house during the demo, cooking up something for lunch. I could smell it all the way out in the orchard. After a quick tour of the cider press inside the barn, our group made its way into the mudroom of the 1700s farmhouse, chucked off our boots, and entered the kitchen. Platters of food covered the counters and Brad explained every one: two soups on the stove included Oaxacan black bean and vegan carrot ginger; there was a homemade baked macaroni and cheese (or was it fusilli?) that my eight-year-old couldn’t stop eyeing; a Caprese salad, olives, cheeses; a selection of charcuterie including a gorgeous coppa made from the pigs who ate the drops from the trees at Windfall; a tossed green salad; loaves of fresh country bread; and to drink, Brad was pouring glasses of the Perry, Windfall’s Cider made with fermented pear juice. All was divine.
Just when I thought Brad couldn’t be more of a rockstar, he ripped open a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies for dessert. A reminder that, a) just because we’re eating like kings, no one is too precious to appreciate some PFCs. b) You have to know the rules to break them. And c) this was camp. I could have sat at that table all day, cider sipping, and eating melt-in-your-mouth charcuterie until I slipped into somnolence. But it was Monday. Work beckoned, and even though our “sick” child was now happily petting the house cat, our other one would soon need fetching from school.
Sad we were to cut our time short and miss the 2 PM Cider + Cheese Tasting at Shacksbury with Jasper Hill, the second 6 PM Dinner with Honey Road, and Tuesday’s 10 AM Maple Production Tour at Trade Winds Farm. But on the flipside, we’re lucky to have these opportunities at our doorstep, and to have had the chance to come at all.
Graft camp was fun. We loved graft camp.