There are just a few precious gasps of summer left. If you're sitting around feeling blue or if your slacker kids are driving you up the wall, I've got the perfect prescription.
Throw a few water bottles and some sunblock into a backpack, round up the gang and head out on Route 78 to Phillips Farm in Milford, New Jersey. There you will find an embarrassment of summer riches literally dripping from trees and vines, just begging to be picked, devoured, and transported to your kitchen back home.
We're talking red-fleshed plums, blushing peaches, tender raspberries, and blackberries so obscenely lush and ripe that they burst when your hands graze them. I'm telling you no lie here. I head out with the family every summer to pick fruit so that I can make jam for the winter and this is the best fruit picking I've ever seen.
We came home last week with $85 worth of fresh picked ambrosia and for the first time ever, we plowed through the stuff so quickly there wasn't enough left for me to can. So we went back this past Sunday and harvested another trunkful, which now waits for me in the downstair fridge. I might just go down there right now, fill up a bowl and top it off with a big scoop of Greek yogurt. Oh yeah.
Beyond its bounteous fruit, Phillips Farm is easy to love. Far from the U-Pick crowds closer in to the suburbs, the fields here are quiet enough to hear the crickets chirp and the birds sing. Rolling hills and red barns surround you as you wander from the plum groves to the blackberry bushes, and just a single lonely teenager languorously waits in the shed to ring up your haul. No one seems worried about how many berries or peaches you're stuffing in your mouth as you pick and you feel like you practically have the place to yourselves.
And then there's the glorious farmland that surrounds the place. After you're done picking, take a 10-minute drive through fragrant farmland into the little town of Milford and over the bridge into Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania.
Hang a couple of turns and you'll arrive at the Homestead, a rustic little general store/deli with a handful of tables out back, that's just perfect for a post-harvest lunch. Linger over a couple of turkey or roast beef sandwiches and grab a home-baked spice cookie or two for the road. Then meander your way back to the city or suburbs and the impending chaos of Fall, with your bellies and your car trunk filled with summer's sweetest parting gifts.
I'll close with this passage from Goodbye Columbus, which comes to mind each year as I stow away my harvest in our downstairs fridge. It's one of the most evocative I know:
"I opened the door of the old refrigerator; it was not empty. No longer did it hold butter, eggs, herring in cream sauce, ginger ale, tuna fish salad, an occasional corsage—rather it was heaped with fruit, shelves swelled with it, every color, every texture, and hidden within, every kind of pit. There were greengage plums, black plums, red plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, long horns of grapes, black, yellow, red, and cherries, cherries flowing out of boxes and staining everything scarlet. And there were melons—cantaloupes and honeydews—and on the top shelf, half of a huge watermelon, a thin sheet of wax paper clinging to its bare red face like a wet lip. Oh Patimkin! Fruit grew in their refrigerator and sporting goods dropped from their trees!"--Philip Roth
Want to Go? Need to Know.
Game Plan: Phillips Farm is a bit over an hour from Montclair. On our first trip, we left at about 2 PM, got there at about 3:15 and had plenty of time to pick. The place closes at 6 PM. Our second trip was even better: We left at about 10 AM, arrived at about 11:15 and picked until about 1:15. We hopped in the car and were at the Homestead for lunch by 1:30.
Getting There: Set your GPS for 290 Church Road, Milford, NJ. That will take you to the Phillips Farm produce stand. They'll direct you to the fields, which are about two minutes away. On weekdays, you'll get your picking baskets at the produce stand. Weekends, they have someone working at the fields, so you can go directly there and get your baskets. The drive on weekends can be a little longer if you use the Garden State Parkway to get to 78--all that shore traffic, of course. Check out their web site at www.phillipsfarms.com.
What to bring/what to wear: If you're worried about ticks and bugs and sunburn and stuff, you can wear long pants and long sleeves. I don't and neither does anyone else in my family. We just give a quick tick check after we're done. The fields are set on a very sunny hillside and there is some stiff walking to do--slather on sunblock, wear sturdy shoes and bring some water. If you really get pooped or have an older person with you, you can always drive them up the driveway to the fruit you want to pick instead of walking it.
Where to Eat: Homestead General Store is located just over the bridge into Pennsylvania. The exact address is 1650 Bridgeton Hill Road, Upper Black Eddy, PA. Their web site is www.homesteadroasters.com. Don't be confused by all the other information on the site. I guess they sell coffee at numerous locations. Their general store, however, is in Upper Black Eddy. Oh, and don't be put off if there are motorcycles out front. I think it must be a popular stop for bikers but it definitely isn't a rough place.
Picking Tips: Since it's late August, the blueberries are almost gone, but there are tons of blackberries, plums, peaches, apples, and raspberries to be had. Other times of year, they have Asian pears, sour cherries, and a bounty of other stuff. Summer fruit is highly perishable, so unless you plan to can the stuff or freeze it, don't over pick. And don't pile up all your peaches or blackberries in each basket. Spread them out into shallow layers to keep them from crushing. Also--don't pick your peaches perfectly ripe. They'll be mush before you even get home. If you pick them slightly hard and then pull some out each day and put them on the counter, they'll ripen in about a day. If you want to make jam, shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll walk you through it. It's not as scary as it may seem.