For the eighth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Locavore, the newest restaurant at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2014."
Black Gilliflower, King David, Oxheart Pippin, Russian Raspberry, Zaubergau Reinette.
These are the names of apples – some of which are hundreds of years old – all of which are grown at Weston’s Antique Apples, an orchard in New Berlin.
Unlike the ordinary apples you can find at the supermarket, each of these apples also possesses a unique flavor profile. Some taste of pears. Others of spices like clove or anise. And others are tart or berry-like.
And thanks to a new Milwaukee company called Sunny Slope, their prized characteristics will now be showcased in a variety of preserves and sauces, including apple marmalade.
The company is part of a Renaissance of sorts for an apple orchard whose roots can be traced back over 100 years.
It was around 1898 when William Marckwardt, Genevieve Weston’s great grandfather moved to Wisconsin from Germany. An iron worker by trade, he settled in the Milwaukee area, where he took advantage of the booming industrial scene.
But, when the depression hit, he swapped out his home in Milwaukee for acreage and a small farm in New Berlin. Initially, he thought he’d raise chickens. But, after two years of losing his flock to theft and predators, he changed his tune.
He considered the apple trees which already grew on his land – as well as the successful orchard businesses operating across the road -- and made the decision to pursue a business growing apples. It was a business decision that became a family passion.
His daughter Alice and her husband Harvey planted their first set of trees in the mid-1930’s, growing apples that were inspired by Alice’s love of England. A second orchard was planted in the 1950s, followed by additional trees planted on six additional acres of family land in the 1970s.
Initially, they sold their apples at a roadside farm-stand; but, in the 1950s they began selling apples at area farmer’s markets, including the West Allis and Mitchell Street markets, and later the Dane County Farmer’s Market.
Today, Weston’s family-operated orchards have supplied the public with historic apple varieties for over 60 years. Both the barn and landscape are on the National Historic Registry. The orchards cover 16 acres with more than 700 trees and over 200 varieties with dates varying from the Calville Blanc d'Hiver (1598), Gravenstein (1600) to the Wolf River (1881) and Pink Pearl (1944).
"The orchard has been passed down from generation to generation," Weston says. "And it’s always been something my family has retired to. My grandmother sold at the West Allis market through her 93rd year, and my brother and I have carried on the business.
"I love the fact that we’re sharing this legacy with the generations that preceded us. I never met my great grandfather, and yet there’s this great connection between us."
Weston, who grew up picking apples and helping at the orchard, currently works as a speech language pathologist, and her brother, Bill, is employed at Johnson Controls. Maintaining steady incomes has allowed them to preserve the legacy of Weston’s work, without worrying about fluctuations in the growing season.
"The fact that this hasn’t been our sole income has made us patient," she says. "It’s given us the liberty to plant a wider variety of trees."
But, two years ago, Weston decided there was more to be done.
"In 2012, we had our worst year on record," she notes. "We had two days of frost and lost 60 percent of our crop in two days. Then apples started to drop in June. It was so hot. Then we had hail in October. We needed to do something that gave us a product that would carry us over if something like that happened to us again."
And – almost as if the universe heard her wish -- in 2013 serendipity visited the orchard in the form of local musician, Ethan Keller.
"I think I first visited the orchard in 2011 and I took a couple of pictures," says Keller. "I grew up in Mukwonago on National Avenue. So, I always knew the orchard was there; but, it wasn’t until I got interested in making things with apples that I decided to explore the orchard."
Keller was married and had recently purchased a home.
"I was a stay-at-home dad who watched too much ‘P. Allen Smith Garden Home’ and ‘The Victory Garden,’" he says. "And I became interested in heirloom apples… so, when I wandered in, I started interrogating them – more or less – about their apples."
His initial inquiries quickly turned curiosity into passion. And soon Keller was volunteering at the orchard and offering to establish a Facebook page for the business.
"I like variety – even in my art and my music," he says. "I have one flavor of something and it makes me want to try more. So, the idea of expanding and getting involved in hundreds of varieties of apples is so intriguing. And I wanted to help."
Keller, who had been experimenting with homemade ciders, began to get more involved with the orchard’s operations and advanced in his experimentation with their apples.
"My father wanted to do an apple cider making class and Ethan volunteered to teach it," says Weston. "We made Pink Pearl cider that day."
The Pink Pearl apple – the flavor of which Keller describes as reminiscent of Now & Later candy – made excellent cider. And the experience inspired Weston and Keller to move forward on an idea that had been percolating for some time: the creation of Sunny Slope, a company specializing in deliciously diversified sauces, sodas and cider.
"These days, the direction of the family farm is to have the value added products that you can carry and sell," says Weston. "And the idea behind Sunny Slope was to create a line of products that would create an additional income – insurance of a sort – to help keep the orchard in good standing."
Sunny Slope, which launched a line of products this summer to sell at the farmer’s market, will carry a full complement of products including jams, jellies, marmalade, apple butter and chunky apple sauce, as well as artisan sodas and, eventually, hard cider.
Soda flavors, which Keller has developed, currently include flavors like lime coconut, heirloom apple cider ginger ale and strawberry vanilla rosehip.
"With the orchard business, so much of the income comes in between the months of July through November," Weston says. "Unfortunately, the bills come in all year. So, Sunny Slope will contract with Weston to use apples for its production, ensuring a supplement to that income."
Even limes may one day be produced by Weston, which currently has a greenhouse which could be converted to an orangerie.
Weston and Keller are currently seeking out options for a food processing facility in Southeastern Wisconsin where they can produce their products in quantity. They are also working with a consultant to assist them through the process to become licensed for hard cider, as well as looking into options for pasteurization and bottling.
"Part of the equation will be doing single variety ciders, which aren’t typically available on the market," says Keller. "Even though it’s not apple country here in Wisconsin, I’m way more excited about doing this here than out in Washington. We’re not using a variety of one or two bland apples. We’re relying on the naturally complex flavors of these unique apples."
And not only are the apples themselves unique, but they are impacted by weather conditions – which can render an apple sweeter, more tart, or even a bit spicy.
"In a wet year, one apple might taste a bit like limeade. In another, more like a margarita. One of the wonderful things about the cider is that we’ll be able to preserve the flavors of a specific year," remarks Weston. "This year’s apple will always be different from next year’s, depending on weather and conditions."
And additional ideas are always in the hopper.
"We do grow Calvilles at Weston, which are the traditional apples they use to make Calvados," says Weston. "So, there’s always been a desire to make that."
Sunny Slope products will be available at the West Allis and Dane County farmers markets through the end of the season, as well as at the Weston farm stand through the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
Tastings of a selection of Sunny Slope products will also be served alongside a host of other autumn-inspired dishes at the Edible Milwaukee event, Apple Sauced! which takes place on Tuesday, October 21 from 7-10:30 p.m. at Great Lakes Distillery. Tickets are $35 in advance or $45 at the door. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit eventbrite.com/e/apple-sauced-tickets.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.