Apple Days – A Merrimack Valley Apple Pie Tour
Henry David Thoreau called the apple “the noblest of fruits,” and it’s to its simple perfection — and the warm, spicy flavors of the classic pie it creates — that we turn when the evening chill calls us to the comforts of home. So in celebration, we offer a sneak peek at the very best of the Merrimack Valley’s apple pies. Who makes your favorite?
Mann Orchards – Methuen
“We know good pies,” says Bill Fitzgerald, the fourth generation of the Mann family to operate the orchard. “My mother started making pies in 1956, when I was born, to supplement the income of our fruit business. She’d graduated from Radcliffe (College), but it was important to her to find a way to stay home with her kids. She made pies the way my father liked them. The recipe’s never changed.”
Using their own apples, Mann’s pies are made fresh at their Pleasant Valley Street store throughout the year. Quality control is strict, right down to adjusting the temperature of the ovens depending on the type of apples being cooked, and testing by hand with a fork to see if the pies are done.
The pies are available in crumb-top and traditional, and have a devoted following. Mann Orchards sells hundreds of pies a week, even in the summer. A taste test confirms that the apples retain their natural flavor and a pleasant, firm texture. The pies are sweet, but not too sweet, and the crumb-top pies will fool you into thinking that your grandmother is working in their kitchen.
Mann’s pies are available at other area farms during the fall, including Parlee Farms in Tyngsboro and Bolton Orchards.
“Apple pie doesn’t need to be difficult,” says Fitzgerald, whose wife, sons and daughter are also involved in the business. “It’s about community. It reflects our relationship with the land and each other.”
New England Country Pies – Merrimack, N
Located on a bustling stretch of Route 101A, New England Country Pies is perhaps best known as the home of the “Mile High Apple Pie,” a name that harkens back more than 30 years, to the days when owner Joe Lannan and his brother sold pies at Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
“Everyone visiting Boston wanted apple pie,” Lannan says. “The bigger, the better. The name just stuck.”
The business expanded over time, operating for a number of years at Woodmont Orchards in Hollis, N.H. But some years after Lannan and his partners decided to get into the wholesale business, he needed to expand. The bakery has been at its current location for the past 14 years.
Employing anywhere from 20 to 40 people, New England Country Pies produces pies for its own retail bakery at the front of the building, and for retail outlets such as Market Basket and BJ’s, which often attach their own private labels. The operation can produce up to 6,000 pies per day.
Despite the size of the business, Lannan’s pies are made chiefly by hand, and with their delicate apple flavor and delicious, flaky crust, they taste remarkably unlike anything coming from a commercial bakery. “All of our apples are local,” Lannan says. “We use the freshest ingredients possible.”
Customers visiting New England Country Pies will find a warm and friendly staff. “I have great employees,” Lannan says. “I’d never be where I am today without them.”
Russell Orchards – Ipswich
With the farm’s bakery nestled into the corner of Russell Orchards’ 18th century barn, the smell of baking pies greets visitors when they reach the end of the rambling stone drive. Russell has been making pies, using only its own apples, since 1979, when the Russell family purchased the orchard from the descendants of its original owners. Pam Herndon has managed the bakery for the past six years, her passion for the job unmistakable when she speaks.
“My purpose in the bakery is to take our fruit and make it into something better than it already is,” Herndon says. “We stay as close to the way that food should be as possible. The pastry is just flour, butter and water. We hand-crimp all the edges. The pies look like you made them at home.”
Russell makes all of its pies during the fall harvest season and freezes them for baking throughout the year, a process that ensures fresh pies are available every day. “We bake pies every morning,” says Herndon, who oversees a staff of six to 10 people. “We usually sell them all.”
Russell Orchards’ apple pies look and taste homemade. The filling is fragrant with spices, the apples mixed with just enough sugar to give them a hint of sweetness. “The recipe is Meredith Russell’s,” Herndon says of the orchard’s original owner. “We never mess with it.”
Russell also makes what Herndon calls “apple roll ups,” strips of pastry filled with apples. “It’s like a portable piece of pie,” she says, “for when you just can’t wait until you get home.”
Smolak Farms – North Andover
There are times when an apple pie is more than just the sum of its parts. That’s the way they come at Smolak Farms. Fruity, comforting and made entirely by hand in the farm’s bakery (even the pastry is hand rolled), Smolak’s pies hold within them more than 300 years of history and, perhaps, the future of Massachusetts farming.
Born and raised on the 300-year-old farm, Michael Smolak has been managing Smolak Farms’ daily operations since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, concentrating his efforts on apples and other fruit. “It started with 160 apple trees that were already here,” Smolak says. “We’ve added several conventional and heirloom varieties, and today we’re in the process of reinventing the orchards again using new farming methods.”
Smolak opened the farm stand and bakery in 1985 with his late sister, Eileen, whose recipe is still used to make their apple pies. “Eileen was a stickler for freshness,” Smolak says. “We don’t use anything artificial—sometimes less is really more.”
An innovator in modern farming, Smolak has served as an appointee to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, and believes that Massachusetts farms need to diversify their offerings to stay viable in the modern economy. In addition to its Pick Your Own operation, Smolak Farms currently offers educational programs and hosts children’s birthday parties. This past summer it was the site of a popular chef series.
“When you buy one of our apple pies, you take a piece of this farm home with you,” Smolak says. “The apples were grown right here. The pies are made with care by local people. It’s not just about the pie; it’s about everything that goes into making it.”
Nason’s Stone House Farm – Boxford
Taking its name from the striking, antique stone house at the front of the property, Nason’s Stone House Farm was founded in 1869 by the great-grandparents of current owners Jim Nason and his sister Mary Corthell. Nason’s began raising chickens in
the 1940s, and by the mid-60s it was making chicken pies — still one of its most popular items. Apple and other dessert pies soon followed.
“At first, my mother made all the pies up in the house,” Nason says, referring to the stone house, where his mother, 96, still lives. “But it got to be too much, so they moved the operation down here.” Today, the farm’s pies are made in a neat, white outbuilding behind the house, overlooking a blueberry patch. The building, a renovated chicken hatchery, also houses their retail store.
Nason, the farm’s resident baker, still uses his mother’s apple pie recipe, which he describes as “a simple mix of apples, sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon.” The pies have a strong apple flavor and a nice amount of spice, but it’s the pastry that’s the real star.
“We have people that buy our pies just for the crust,” Corthell says. “They say it’s the best they’ve ever had.”
Nason’s sells most of its apple pies during the fall and around the holidays, but they are available all year. Most popular are the frozen pies that customers can take home and bake themselves. “We had a lady from Connecticut who used to take the pies out of our foil pans and put them in her own glass one,” Nason says, laughing. “She used to tell her mother-in-law she made them herself.”
27 Pleasant Valley Street
New England Country Pies
736 Milford Street
143 Argilla Hill Road
315 South Bradford Street
North Andover, MA
Nason’s Stone House Farm
276 Washington Street