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Like vampires, apple lovers experience love at first bite

Weekend!Food: In Season
by: JIM CLARK, As apple season peaks, grocers such as New Seasons Market pile on the varieties, including Golden Delicious (left) and Jonagold.

Ramona was sitting on the floor beside a box of apples. Lying around her on the cement floor were a number of apples - each with one bite out of it. While Beezus stared, Ramona reached into the box, selected an apple, took one bite out of the reddest part, and tossed the rest of the apple onto the floor. While she noisily chewed that bite, she reached into the apple box again. …

'Stop it,' ordered Beezus. 'Stop it this instant! You can't take one bite and then throw the rest away.'

'But the first bite tastes best,' explained Ramona reasonably, as she reached into the box again.

- 'Beezus and Ramona,' Beverly Cleary

When I was growing up in California, my mother read all of the 'Ramona' books to us several times. The apple incident always stood out for me as one of the best instances of Portland author Beverly Cleary's almost psychic ability to describe the way children's thoughts differ from those of grown-ups.

Now that I'm a boring old grown-up myself, I wonder things like, What kind of apples were they? Where did they come from?

Since Ramona lived in Northeast Portland, I imagine her family bought that big box of apples from a farm stand somewhere nearby. No doubt the apples came from either Oregon or Washington.

The area around Hood River is still home to apple, cherry and pear orchards. On the other side of the Columbia, the Yakima Valley is a major apple producer, along with several other regions of Washington state.

Apples form the largest share of Washington's agricultural production, and the apple is the Washington state fruit (Oregon's is the pear).

Apples have a very long shelf life. They are available year-round, but right now is the peak of the local apple season. A wider variety of apples is available now than at any other time of year, and it's also time for Portland Nursery's Apple Tasting Festival, now in its 19th year.

About 40 different kinds of apples will be available for tasting, says organizer Peggy Acott. If you find something you really like, most of the fruit also will be available for sale.

Portland Nursery was founded by Bob Denney and now is run by his son, Jon Denney. The elder Denney has relationships with many local orchardists, going back decades.

Because of this, the nursery is able to get a fantastic variety of apples for the annual tasting and sale. This is especially true in years when growing conditions are good, and this has been a very good year, according to Acott.

She says not to miss her favorite, the Rubinette, a cross between a Golden Delicious and Cox's Orange Pippin. Sometimes, the apples' names are enough to start the mouth watering, with types like Ambrosia, Honey Crisp and Red Winesap.

Some sound like brand names for makeup - Blushing Golden, Rome Beauty, Splendour - while others sound more like racehorses - Criterion, King David, Northern Spy.

Personally, I've always been partial to the very tart, bright green Granny Smiths. In my mind's eye, they're named after a feisty octogenarian who lives in an old farmhouse and is famous for her apple pies.

In addition to apple tasting, the event at Portland Nursery is a bit of a harvest festival. Vendors sell baked goods, honey, apple butter and other apple products.

You can watch cooking, gardening and cider press demonstrations; the kids can get their faces painted; and it's all accompanied by music from local bands.

The event also is a canned-food drive - bring a can, get a free apple and help the poverty alleviation efforts of Portland Impact.

The history of apples in Oregon goes back to the first settlers. Henderson Lewelling and William Meek planted the area's first apple orchard near Milwaukie in 1848. Fifty years later, in 1908, Sydney Babson planted the first apple trees in the Hood River area.

The seedlings for these early orchards had to be carefully transported from the East. This is because apples grown from seed don't stay true to type. Grafting is the only way to keep a strain going, to produce whatever specific variety of apple you want to grow.

Another peculiarity of apples is that they contain much more air than most other fruits. Scientifically speaking, the cells in apple tissue fit together imperfectly, trapping air in the spaces on a microscopic level. This is why apples float, as you know if you've ever bobbed for them.

It's also why apples sometimes seem to crack open, almost like a can of soda, when you take that first bite. In other words, Ramona was right: The first bite really is the best one.

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Oregon apple pie

• 4 large Granny Smith apples

• 2 tablespoons sugar

• 1 tablespoon cinnamon

• 1 egg

• 1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, very soft

• 1 cup flour

• 1/2 cup brown sugar

• 1/2 cup dark brown molasses sugar

• 1 cup crushed raw hazelnuts

Core and slice the apples. You can peel them for a softer pie or leave the skins on. Arrange the apple slices in a deep 8-by-8-inch cooking pan, stir in the cinnamon and sugar and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Blend together the flour, brown sugars and hazelnuts. If you have whole raw hazelnuts, you can crush them inside a sturdy plastic bag with a hammer.

In a separate bowl, blend together the butter and egg. Gradually add the dry ingredients, blending well, but don't worry if the mixture remains lumpy.

Spread the mixture evenly over the top of the apples and bake until crisp on top and bubbling, about 40 minutes. Serve warm with ice cream.

Serves six.

Note: Dark brown molasses sugar is available at specialty food stores or at www.wholesomesweeteners.com

Apple Tasting Festival

When: 10 a.m. to

4 p.m. Friday-Sunday, Oct. 13-15 and Oct. 20-21

Where: Portland Nursery, 5050 S.E. Stark St., 503-231-5050

Cost:Free