Ambrosia apples

picking Ambrosia apples

This post was inspired by a trip to the Wenatchee area sponsored by Columbia Marketing International, who grow and distribute Ambrosia apples, along with other types of apples, pears, cherries, and apricots. My trip was paid for but the opinions, photographs, words, and the decision to write about the trip are mine. 

The only apple I remember eating as a kid was a mushy Red Delicious, the lurid red from the thick skin bleeding into the soft white flesh. Every school lunch had one of those shiny apples balanced on the tray, along with the hamburgers made mostly of soy or the pizza so greasy we all sopped off the top with our napkins. This is from the era when a plastic packet of ketchup counted as a vegetable in the government’s count of daily nutrients. Apples were tasteless and ubiquitous.

Thank goodness, we’ve seen a shift in the curiosity level of where our food comes from in this country. That means we have more interesting apples on our table now. Most of the Red Delicious apples are exported overseas these days. The stores where we shop stock Fujis, Honeycrisps, Jonagolds, and Braeburns regularly. There are sour apples and sweet ones, slightly mushy to super crisp.

And my favorite by far, these days, is one you might not have eaten yet.

I’m here to tell you — after I was able to pick apples from the trees, meet the people who grow these, and learn exactly how they go from tree to our hands — that you really must try Ambrosia apples.

ambrosia iphone 4

This might not look like apple-growing country to you. It surprised me too. This dramatic open-skied country of Washington just east of the Cascade mountains is desert. It’s not the harsh beauty of Arizona deserts but gentle and rolling. I stayed at the Cave B Inn, a lovely place near the edge of cliffs overlooking the Columbia River. (If you’ve been to the Gorge amphitheater, it’s right next door.) I’m always amazed by the fortitude of people who stopped in places like this and said, “You know, let’s make this home. I think we can grow some apples here.”

Ambrosias on the trees

Grow apples they do. Washington state is the biggest apple-growing state in the country. And more apples are grown in this area than any other.

Ambrosia apples, a relatively new kind of apple, is quickly taking over this region. As you might know, most types of apples available for sale in this country are hybrids, fruits created from scientific curiosity and plenty of experiments with rootstocks and scions. However, the first Ambrosia sapling grew in a field of Jonagolds, a new tree that grew fruits with firm flesh and a honey sweetness. It sprang up on its own in an orchard in British Columbia, like Athena out of Zeus’s head.

Those apple farmers realized they had something great and grew more of those apple trees. Later, they sold the exclusive rights to grow the apples named Ambrosia (food of the gods, of course) to the McDougall family in Washington.

I loved meeting these folks. Every time I visit a farm or orchard, I’m struck again by how resourceful and nimble of mind farmers have to be. The McDougalls are thinking, always, about how to produce the best apple they can. These are men and women who adapt to weather, water, and whatever comes their way. They’re technologically adept and grounded on the land at the same time. Want a problem solved? Ask a farmer.

And these farmers, the McDougalls, produce an incredible apple. The Ambrosia is sweet without being cloying, more like honey than sugar. And yet the flesh is crisp, a combination hard to find. I ate the Ambrosia in many forms that weekend: as gelato, in cider, as vinaigrette for a salad, on a gluten-free pizza, alongside cheese. They were all delicious. My favorite taste, however, was the apple I picked right from the tree.

at the factory

Do most kids know that the apple they eat for lunch has passed through many, many hands on the way from tree to them?

This nearly 1-million-square-foot packing facility we visited is equipped with incredible technology. One machine takes 8 rapid photographs of every single apple on the line, to detect blemishes and irregularities. Apples that are deemed not ready for the eating market are moved onto the line intended for juice or applesauce instead. (Oh, how consumers like a perfect, shiny apple.)

More important than the machines are the people who make it possible for us to eat our apples. Ladies, thank you for this work.

The McDougall family are concerned with both the apples and the people who pick them. We saw the housing built for people who pick apples here, whom the McDougalls hire legally on H2 visas, shuttle them from Mexico, and then provide employment and shelter for them. They’re paid higher than minimum wage and rewarded for the amount of apples and other fruits they pick. 92% of those workers come back to the same farm each year. Apparently, 5 months of picking fruit can provide for a family at home for the year.

I climbed up a ladder with an enormous bag on my shoulders to pick apples in one of the fields. Within 5 minutes I was immediately grateful to everyone who has ever picked food for me to eat. And I understood why the McDougalls advertise for workers every year in American newspapers and don’t get anyone coming forward for the work. This is hard, hard manual labor. Again, thank you to everyone who makes it possible for us to eat our apples.

Wenatchee helicopter tour

Apples are an integral part of this area. I had a chance to see the area from above on the first helicopter ride of my life. (I’m hooked.) This part of Washington is soft sand-colored swaths of desert, interrupted by enormous sweeps of green orchards against steep cliffs. It’s stunning. And those green fields provide the income for so many in this region.

ambrosia V

Since the area is a natural desert, the lack of rainfall could be a concern for an area producing this much fruit. However, this is the Columbia river, the mighty mighty Columbia. (I found it impossible to not sing Woody Guthrie in my mind the entire weekend.) We were told that the entire agricultural production of this area takes only 3% of the Columbia’s water. It’s an incredible system.

food of Wenatchee

I’ve been lucky enough to go on a few sponsored trips in the last decade — we turn down most of the ones we are offered — and I have eaten well. But the food in the Wenatchee area is some of the best I have ever eaten. I’ve eaten charcuterie around the world and in Italy many times. The cured meats from Cured by Visconti in Wenatchee is some of the best I have ever eaten.

(Thank you to Ravenous Catering for not only making consistently delicious food but feeding me safely every meal. And thank you to everyone at CMI who arranged this trip, and to the new friends I made on long bus rides from apple cidery to winery to orchard.)

It’s clear that living in an area dedicated to growing great fruit produces an interest in all food.

from orchard to breakfast

I’ve been home from Wenatchee for weeks, with a trip to New York in between me and that trip. (I’ll share some recommendations for places to eat in NY soon too.) I’m still thinking about those apples.

Of course, it’s easy to remember that trip when we’re eating Ambrosia apples every day. Lucy eats 2 or 3 apples a day these days. Since my time in Wenatchee, and since I’ve shown her these photos and shared some of my stories, the only apples she wants to eat are Ambrosias. Fine with me. They’re fantastic.

The apples I saw hanging on the trees, about to be harvested, should be in your stores now. I’d seek them out, if I were you.