A ‘sweet’ look at the area’s apple orchards

Fall is often thought of as prime pumpkin season, but a treat that is as equally healthy and delicious is also readily available in the Southeast Tennessee region: the apple.

Apples grow plentifully across the United States, from Washington State to Connecticut, and the Volunteer State also has its lion’s share of the crisp, delicious fruit. Pumpkin patches are a fun way to pass a fall afternoon, but don’t forget about the nearby orchards that can provide just as much family fun.

Here’s a look at four of the area’s “sweetest” orchards.

8/20/10 Apple Valley Orchard, Cleveland, Tennessee

Apple Valley Orchard, 351 Weese Road SE, Cleveland
Just a quick 30-minute drive up the interstate from Chattanooga is Apple Valley Orchard, which offers a bakery, gift shop, seasonal events and tours (including for groups and field trips) by appointment. Varieties of apples available include Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Mutsu, Granny Smith, Charlie Gold and Rome Beauty, as well as a variety called Caitlin Gala, which growers at Apple Valley developed themselves and named for the owners’ daughter. This family-owned orchard was recently name the Best Apple Orchard in Tennessee by Southern Living, who also counted the bakery’s pies as among the best in the South.

From its humble beginnings of just a few backyard apple trees in 1974, the orchard has grown to 15,000. The orchard’s stores operate from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday during the season. Cakes and pies, from pecan to caramel apple nut to pumpkin, are available for order.

Fairmount Orchard, 2204 Fairmount Pike, Signal Mountain
Ask just about anyone on Signal Mountain about good apple cider, and they’ll tell you you can’t beat the delicious brew at Fairmount Orchard. Hot or cold, their cider is some of the best in the state. Other homemade confections, such as jams, jellies, soup mixes and more, are also available at the orchard’s gift shop.

Jonagolds, Jonathans, Mutsus, Shazukas, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Romes, Stayman Winesaps, Galas, Granny Smiths, Fujis and Arkansas Blacks are all available varieties. The business is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily throughout apple season (typically mid-August through early January).

Oren Wooden’s Apple House, 6351 New Harmony Road, Pikeville
Probably the area’s oldest continually operating apple house, Wooden’s has apples, pumpkins and a whole host of other vegetables. Locals can’t let a fall season go by without a treat at Oren’s Orchard Café, which has all sorts of apple-based treats for young and old alike. There’s also a pie shop where you can get fresh, homemade pies to go.

Group tours of the orchard are available. Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Granny Smith and Mutsu apples are harvested—plus sweet potatoes, butternut and acorn squash, tomatoes, peppers, okra, onions and more are all grown at Wooden’s. Seasonal hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Wheeler’s Orchard & Vineyard, 956 Wheeler Road, Dunlap
The region’s only orchard/vineyard, Wheeler’s focuses on sustainability and sustainably grown apples. The farm under its current namesake has been in operation since the Wheeler family purchased it and planted apple trees in the 1970s, but the land had been used as an orchard even before that time. The original orchard can still be viewed as guests stroll the in-use orchards and vineyards.

Unpasteurized cider is one of many goodies offered at Wheeler’s, and their products are available at many area stores and farmers markets as well. Varieties available include Mollie’s Delicious, Liberty, McIntosh, Jonagold, Empire, Old Time Golden Delicious, Gala, Braeburn, Winesap, Fugi, Mutsu, Red Rome Beauty, Granny Smith and Blushing Golden. But Wheeler’s is more than apples. From July to mid-September, you can pick your own blueberries; in August, you can pick your own grapes. Seasonal hours are Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.

Chocolate Gravy & Biscuits: A Southeast Tennessee Heritage Food

Chocolate gravy is a warm pudding-like sauce served over homemade biscuits.

Chocolate gravy is a warm pudding-like sauce served over homemade biscuits.

Chocolate gravy is known to those deeply rooted in Southern culinary culture. Back in the day, beloved grandmothers throughout parts of the mountainous South—particularly in Tennessee and Arkansas, it seems—enchanted many a youngin with this warm, chocolate pudding-like concoction poured over homemade biscuits.

Considered a breakfast food, not a dessert, the origin of chocolate gravy is somewhat of a mystery. “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America” credits chocolate gravy’s beginnings to the trading network between the Tennessee Valley and Spanish Louisiana. The encyclopedia also suggests that it could have been preserved from Spanish colonies on the East Coast in the 16th and 17th centuries by the ethnic group known as the Melungeons.

Simpler theories pin its origins to country cooks who were resourceful with Hershey’s cocoa when it first appeared on shelves in rural areas.

Tellico Junction Café serves chocolate gravy each Saturday as part of the breakfast buffet.

Tellico Junction Café serves chocolate gravy each Saturday as part of the breakfast buffet.

Regardless of its rich cultural heritage, chocolate gravy is merely a memory in many a kitchen and restaurant today. However, there is still at least one place to experience chocolate gravy in its full glory—Tellico Junction Café in Englewood, Tennessee, which serves it each Saturday as part of the breakfast buffet.

“I grew up with chocolate gravy—my grandmothers on both sides of my family made it,” said Candi Huckabey, daughter of Tellico Junction Café owner Dianne Kinser. “We served it one Saturday morning, and it kind of snowballed—everybody was asking for it—so we added it to our regular Saturday breakfast buffet.”

The family-owned restaurant, which opened in 2005, based its chocolate gravy on a recipe from an old church cookbook. “The woman who makes it for us each Saturday doesn’t have to measure anything—she just knows what to do,” Huckabey said.

Tellico Junction Café is located at 17 E. Main Street in Englewood, Tennessee. Restaurant hours are Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, call 423-887-7770.

 

If you would like to make chocolate gravy and biscuits at home, here is a recipe from “A Skillet Full” by Lodge Cast Iron:

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 tablespoons cocoa

2 tablespoons flour

1/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups milk

Directions: Melt butter in skillet. In a bowl, mix together dry ingredients. Add vanilla and milk to dry ingredients. Pour into skillet with melted butter and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until thick. Serve with hot biscuits. Makes 2 cups.