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Apple butter season: Families, groups say process is a social event

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Trae Brown, 21, left, of Front Royal, and John Keane, of Winchester, dump peeled Golden Delicious apples into a grinder. The apples will later be dumped into a copper kettle to make apple butter. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Trae Brown adds wood to the fire under a pot of boiling water. He uses a small electric motor to stir the apple butter.

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Apples are peeled and ready to be processed in a grinder.


By Kim Walter-Daily Correspondent

Apple butter season has officially begun in the Shenandoah Valley.

Stopping by local farmers markets, one can find a vast array of the tasty treat. While folks can agree on the food's deliciousness, they might not all know just what goes into making it.

"It's a heck of a job," said Strasburg resident William Wharton, a man whose family has made apple butter for well over 100 years. He remembers making it as a child with his parents, and has passed on the tradition so well that his grandson, James Hershey, 37, and also of Strasburg, could probably make the treat with his eyes closed.

Around this time every year, the family gets together and starts the surprisingly tedious process of making apple butter.

The family begins by going to a farm and buying a truckload -- maybe two -- of drop apples. According to Hershey, these are the best to use because they've already fallen to the ground and have begun to break down the natural sugar, making them easier to cook with.

"You can use any type of apple," Wharton said, but be aware that depending on how sweet the particular kind of fruit is, it will change the amount of sugar that needs to be added.

However, before you can even start to think about cooking the apples, time must be taken to peel and cut them up. The family usually takes three or four nights gathered around a table to do this step.

"It's great to get the whole family together at that point and just talk with each other and swap stories about apple butter," laughed Hershey, who has been involved in making it for 30 years.

Hershey advised that using a copper kettle is best because it heats the apples evenly. He also said that heating it over a wood fire helps to give the treat that extra authentic flavor.

When the apples are finally ready, the cooking begins, usually before the sun completely comes up. In order to avoid burning the apple butter, it must be stirred constantly for the 12-13 hours it takes to make it. "That's why it helps to have so many people ... you can't do it on your own," Hershey said.

Caution must be taken at this point in the process, as the apples will pop and splatter quite a distance. That is why the wood stirrers the family uses are several feet long.
Once the apples start to turn a shade of brown and they aren't as chunky, it is time to begin adding ingredients.

"It's just sugar, cinnamon and cloves," said Hershey.

He added that it is best to use liquid cinnamon instead of powdered because it won't burn as easily. However, it's more concentrated "so you really have to be careful with your measurements."

For the rest of the day, the family will take turns stirring and continue to add to the mixture after periodically tasting it. By the time it's done, the sun is starting to go down, and then the canning begins. Hershey prefers using quart jars because they seal completely and therefore can keep for as long as they're needed. Hershey warns that while gallon jars might be easier to use, they don't seal completely and will begin to sour the apple butter from the top down.

"The best part is not only the fun of being with family and the final product, but it's actually the clean up," Hershey said. "The mixture caramelizes around the sides of the kettle and so we'll all stand around it with a few loaves of bread and just scoop it out and enjoy ... all in all, the whole process is like a celebration."

The family makes at least 50 gallons every year to share amongst themselves.
"I can't imagine having toast without it," Hershey said.

Another group in the valley that prides themselves on their apple butter is the family and friends of the Shen-Val Farm Market in White Post.

Sharon McDonald, owner of the market, also owns the farm that produces the apples used in their apple butter. They use fresh picked apples, since the final product is sold.

They also use a little updated technology in the preparing and cooking process. An automatic peeler is used in the days leading up to cooking the apples, "but we still go over them with a knife. It's a lot of work, but you want to make sure it's good in the end," McDonald said.

This year marked the second that the apple butter was made on site at the market, with the help of family and friends like Trae Brown and his grandfather, Lionel Boger, who have been making apple butter for quite some time.

"It's one time of year that I always look forward to," Brown said. "There's no way to really teach it, you just have to be around it."

The two 50-gallon kettles that the group uses have electric motors installed to do the stirring throughout the day, which started at about 3:30 that morning on a recent day and wouldn't end until sunset.

Even with the amount being made, McDonald said that the apple butter flies off the shelves.

"We have fun, and we get to produce something that makes other people happy," she smiled.

Of the 44 gallons they made two weeks ago, only a few jars remained.

While the group tended to the cooking apples, customers of the market stopped by to watch, take pictures and share their own memories of making apple butter.

"It makes it all worth it," said Brown, who, like Hershey, hopes to carry on the tradition.






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