The egg-shaped Italian prune plum is one of the many varieties of rare, unusual or heritage fruit trees at Tree-Licious Orchards in Port Murray.
As one pleasure eludes us, another arrives. We had an especially extraordinary peach season this year, but it's about to end. Happily, summer apples are now ripe and ready.
At Port Murray's Tree-Licious Orchards on a recent warm and sunny day, James E. Kesler drove me and my husband, Paul, around 130 acres of stunning farmland in the hills of western Jersey. More than 10,000 apple, peach, plum, pear, quince and nectarine trees are grown on his property, which takes more than three hours to explore.
Then again, it might have been a shorter ride had the 80-year-old Kesler not stopped every few feet to point out a rare variety of plum, a huge heirloom apple tree from the 1600s or a new row of firestone peach trees heavy and lush with huge beauties almost ready for market.
It’s hard to describe the raw beauty of this remarkable farm, and the fascination of listening to Kesler, a seventh-generation farmer. Even his talk of propagation and root stock is romantic. Our trip is a cross between a drive-through safari and a storybook adventure, and I am smitten. Paul is so captivated he forgets to use the camera he brought along. We plow through grass higher than the roof of the car. We're actually hit by limbs of fruit-laden trees through open windows. We stop several times so I can pick dark purple plums and huge red peaches from trees right in front of us. My bushel basket full, I started tasting everything.
I've never gone fruit picking; this is my first experience eating food still clinging to the vine and everything is sweet as sugar. Now I know why people love it as an activity and a food experience. As for us, we travel to trees ready with some of the orchard's 79 varieties of apples. The one we choose is called "strawberry," for its color; that night, I make applesauce and it has a pink tint. We find one single "yellow translucent" variety left and I hold up the perfect, white fruit originally from Russia as if it were a prize, which it is.
You can experience a day like this, too, if you call ahead for their hours, but don't expect Kesler to drive you around. There is no admission fee, and the farm is open for picking on Saturdays and Sundays until the end of October, but please know you’ll have to walk quite a way up and down hills to find fruit ripe and ready.
If you don’t feel like hiking, the Kesler family sells their fruit at farmers markets around the state and even in New York; the schedule of markets they attend is on their website.
But 10,000 trees produce a lot of fruit every day. So Carol Kesler peels and cuts cases and cases of whatever comes in and turns them into pies, cakes, muffins and breads, sold at their nearby Just Made Bakery. In a large pie ($17), there’s 1½ pounds of fruit; small pies ($10) contain about 1 pound. It’s refreshing to eat a piece of pastry and just taste the sweetness of the fruit.
In Carol Kesler’s sugar-free pies and cakes, fruit stands on its own sweetness. (In fact, you might not notice the difference between the two. In some products, she uses Splenda as a sweetener.) There are also gluten-free baked goods, made with rice and tapioca flours. If you call ahead, she’ll make you almost anything you want in any form.
Kesler and her daughter, Ginger — who also works hard on the farm — run the show at Just Made. James C. Kesler, Ginger’s brother, works the farm with his dad. James E. and Carol Kesler celebrated their 50th anniversary a few weeks ago, and whoever said not to mix family with business has not met the Keslers. It works beautifully for them.
And for you, ’tis the season. Get the last of the peaches, early season apples and pears fresh from the fields while they’re red and pink and white and green. There are different varieties available every week now and biting into a piece of fruit you've just plucked from a tree is an adventure in itself.
IF YOU GO
Tree-Licious Orchards 135 Karrville Road, Port Murray, (908) 689-2906. treeliciousorchards.com. Hours: Open for picking on Saturdays and Sundays. Call ahead for hours.
Just Made Bakery 6 Riverside Plaza, Route 57, Hackettstown, (908) 852-7191 Hours: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"Taste of New Jersey" appears every other week in Food & Dining and at nj.com/entertainment/dining. Please send news of your favorite finds with your name and phone numbers to Food & Dining, "Taste of New Jersey," The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102 E-mail Brooke Tarabour at [email protected].