This story begins and ends with grapes; an ingredient that plays the starring role in my grandmother’s grape kuchen (pronounced koo-khuh n) and one of the dishes I tend to crave as the seasons morph into fall. Her recipe combines dense yeasty dough with tart Concord grapes and although this fruit is plentiful along the shores of Lake Erie, trying to find them growing within 100 miles of Columbus has been a bit of a challenge. It’s not often I seek out a destination specifically for an ingredient they grow, but I was on a hunt to find these grapes in order to remember what fall tasted like in Northeast Ohio. As a child, we would set out to pick our share just as the trees’ foliage begin to take on a colorful coat. After our harvest, my mom would quickly put us to work helping her make homemade jam by squeezing out the clear jelly-like pulp to separate it from thick deep purple shell, and my grandmother made baking grape kuchen a tradition we couldn’t live without. In order to follow my grandmother’s handwritten recipe, it was a necessity that I found locally grown grapes, and thankfully, I discovered a small family owned u-pick orchard just south of Zanesville that grows my sought after ingredient and more.
My husband accompanied me on my journey to Cherry Orchards because, to be honest, I believe picking seasonal fruit with someone you love helps to create lasting memories. We pulled up to the picturesque grounds and were welcomed by owners Neil and Faye Cherry, as well as their two kittens Carl and Walnut. After a quick introduction, we accompanied Neil on a walk to the koi pond as he began to share the story of his farm. Along the way, we stopped as he pointed out two particularly special apple trees on the property. Their weathered and splintered trunks ran parallel to the earth and although they were not nearly as pretty as the trees that have been added to the property over the last 40+ years, he explained how his great grandfather, Solomon Springs, planted these trees know as Roman Beauty in the 1800s. These trees, which act as symbols of his lineage, are still producing beautiful fruit which help to keep this heirloom variety alive. Neil continued on, telling us that his father purchased the 400 acre property from his uncle in 1947 and started planting fruit trees of his own around eight years later. At his peak, Neil’s father had 500 u-pick cherry trees, but as customer demand for this fruit diminished, he set his sights on more popular fruits such as apples and grapes. In 1971, Neil graduated from Ohio University with a degree in Botany and returned to the farm. Although he never intended to come back and eventually take over the responsibilities of the orchard, at the age of 21 he found himself enamored with the land on which he grew up as a child. He helped his father restore the woodlands and planted 70,000 hardwood trees (tulip poplar and red maples were amongst some of the new additions) and he began filling the 20 acres of land with an assortment of fruit trees.
Today, when you visit Cherry Orchards, you can pick from 54 varieties of apples, 13 types of grapes, and 7 different specifies of pears. In case you are longing for even more, they also grow pumpkins, plums, melons, and blackberries. Neil drove my husband and me around the property in his four wheeler, taking care to point out the aforementioned offerings. He made sure to give special attention to the unique heirloom varieties such as the Stayman apple trees; a tart and crisp variety dating back to the 1800s. He also pointed out the grape vines, which were planted back in the 60s. We learned as we zoomed along and hoped to soak it all in during the short period of time we were there. During the tour, we approached a rustic looking barn on the southwest side of the grounds. Neil explained how his father built this structure when he was in high school. He cut several yellow poplar trees from the land, hauled the logs down to a neighbor’s sawmill, and piece by piece constructed the building entirely by himself. Nearly 25 years ago, the Cherry’s orchard had double the apple production, but Neil concluded our tour by mentioned that they are in the process of downsizing. Faye chimed in that despite the desire to cut back, Neil still continues to plant new varieties including a series of dwarf rootstock apple trees he affectionately dubs his “retirement orchard”.
If you are looking for a short and scenic road trip out of the city, and want to connect the dots to where your food comes from, I urge you to head to Cherry Orchards. Their u-pick season begins in mid-July with peaches and early apples and goes until late fall, but if you aren’t in the mood for picking your own fruit, search for their stand at either the Athens, Reynoldsburg, or Zanesville farmer’s market, where everything is picked and ready to purchase. Throughout the years, I have talked a lot about eating the seasons and this experience is exactly what I am referring to. Concord grapes embody fall, and Cherry Orchards is now my go to place to find this special ingredient. Food can take you on a journey, and I noticed that on the ride home even the aroma of the grapes transported me back in time.
The Cherry Orchards Concord grapes (pictured left) traveled 69 miles to Columbus, while the Concord grapes (pictured right) traveled over 277 miles to Columbus.
ReferencesPower of the Concord Grape
Kuchen, which is German for cake, is traditionally a yeasty dough filled with fruit and baked similar to a coffee cake.
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