One's view of harvest time depends on your perspective. For the farmer, it's 16-hour days of hard work. For the shopper, it's a flood of golden pumpkins, odd-shaped gourds and deep purple grapes. For a child, it's the time for canvassing the neighborhood for sweets during Halloween, that stellar kids' harvest.
The forces of evil have tried to rob this occasion of its joy, resulting in a necessary emphasis on individually wrapped goodies and trips only to well-known neighbors. This in-moderation canvass may be better for your health but it's not as fun as dumping a full bag of sweets on the living room floor in order to begin the serious negotiations and trades with your siblings.
For celebrants who want to add an extra dimension to this food-related holiday, there are several local businesses turning out ideal products to collect for a special Halloween party among friends. Some also provide a good excuse to take a drive in the country over the weekend.
This region boasts one of the country's few producers of sparkling cider. The Linden Beverage Co., in Linden, Va., bottles two varieties of its effervescent cider. Both the clear and the mulled cider are made of the red delicious and winesap apples the Lacy family has been growing in the Shenandoah Mountains since 1900.
No sugar is added to the beverages, resulting in a cider that is light, but not cloying. The blend used is three red delicious to each winesap and the taste has none of the duskiness sometimes associated with ciders.
A visit to the company's orchards in fall finds huge wooden field crates filled with apples, waiting for washing and pressing. The bottling plant and its Red Apple House, the retail outlet for its products, are located on Rte. 55, just off the Linden exit of I-66 (the first Front Royal exit). The apple house is open every day, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. It's a pretty, 90-minute drive to the west from Washington and fall travelers often continue on the Skyline Drive for more leaf viewing.
The operation is a family business. The plant is managed by Betsy McIntyre Quarles, the stepdaughter of Ben Lacy, whose father first sampled sparkling ciders while a Rhodes scholar in England in 1907. Her brother, George, is in sales. He's helped spread the reputation of the cider to major cities across the country.
If a drive in the country is not possible, the cider is available locally at Virginia Vintage, an Old Town Alexandria store specializing in Virginia food products; Woodward & Lothrop; the American Cafe; Hecht's; Sutton Place Gourmet; Best Products and Hickory Farm stores. A fifth bottle is about $2.99 for the regular cider and 50 cents to $1 more for the mulled cider. The regular cider also is sold in a 6.3-ounce bottle for 89 cents.
To accompany the quenching apple taste, turn to another family-run firm that has been producing a high-quality product for decades. Popcorn has undergone some rather silly incarnations of late -- watermelon and lemon-flavored corn spring to mind -- but the Fisher family, of Ocean City, Md., has kept its attention on the best addition to fresh popcorn: hot caramel.
The Fisher family has been coating popcorn with its special caramel mixture since 1937. It operates a shop on the Boardwalk, stirring the popcorn by hand in order to completely cover each kernel. Automatic mixers can leave spots of "naked" corn, but owner Donald Fisher found that the wooden paddles he had built by a local carpenter leave the corn intact, but fully coated with the corn syrup, butter and brown sugar mixture.
In the summer, you often have to wait in long lines to buy the fragrant, crunchy corn. The stand, which is at 200 South Boardwalk, at Talbot Street, closes on Labor Day, but the Fishers re-open on the weekends from October through Christmas, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
A party-size, six-gallon tin is $18; a 3 1/2 gallon tin is $11 and a one-gallon oyster tin filled with the light-colored caramel corn is $3.25.
You could beg for treats throughout the neighborhoods of metropolitan Washington and never be given a delicious piece of Algaras candy, a confection that must rank as one of the area's best-kept secrets. Long-time residents know about it, as do fans of Avignone Freres restaurant in Adams-Morgan, but many others do not.
This chocolate caramel and marshmallow candy was developed in the 1880's by Charles Demonet, a noted Washington confectioner. Its unusual name is the result of citywide affection for a popular diplomat. Its namesake was Don A. Algara R. de Terreros, the first secretary of the Mexican Embassy during the Taft Administration, whose dark brown hair featured a wide white streak down the center. Only in this city would candy have a political connection.
Mimicking the diplomat's hairstyle, the candy has chocolate squares of caramel centered with a ribbon of chewy, hand-made marshmallow. It contains pure vanilla and real cream and the marshmallow is much denser than most commercial varieties.
The catering firm of Avignone Freres bought the patent for this confection from the Demonet heirs in 1958. The candy still is packaged in elegant cream-colored boxes with raised gilt lettering and sells for $4.50 for four ounces and $15 for a pound, one good reason why trick or treaters won't be seeing it in their bags. Save these one-of-a-kind chews for the family party.
Avignone Freres, at 1777 Columbia Road, is open daily; from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Saturday and until 4 p.m. on Sunday.
If you've decided that there's no challenge to collecting an in-town treat, head south for some of the nearly addictive peanuts at the Virginia Diner in Wakefield, Va. Owner Bill Galloway uses Virginia fancy and Virginia jumbo varieties for his light, sweet peanuts, which can be bought unsalted or salted.
Like a similar variety sold in Williamsburg, Galloway's peanuts are boiled in water after being shelled, then roasted in vegetable oil. This creates blisters on the surface, leading first-time eaters to inquire whether the nuts are supposed to be bumpy.
They are, and the taste is worth the physical imperfections. These are much lighter than the oil-dense Spanish peanuts, the standard for snacking nuts.
Galloway's 125-seat diner is open every day from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. It's located right beneath a huge blue-and-white sign proclaiming Wakefield as the Peanut Capitol of the World. He sells a one-pound cellophane bag for $2.40 and a 2 1/2 pound tin for $6.45.
Wakefield is 60 miles south of Richmond and is reached by taking I-95 from Richmond to Petersburg. There, take Rte. 460 east for 30 miles. This becomes Main Street in Wakefield and the Virginia Diner is in the center of town.
Assembling all these sweets will delight the children, but why should the adults go home empty-handed? In the event their palates can't take any more sheer sweetness, you might to serve crackers adorned with cream cheese and a locally made condiment known as Homespun's cranberry catsup. It has little in common, however, with the tomato variety and you'd never find it on a hot dog. Creator Jane Becker has even experimented with calling it cranberry chutney, but it really fits into no handy category.
It comes in small jars, so it's nice for gift-giving, but a plate of crackers spread with cream cheese and Homespun's cranberry catsup is a colorful, autumnal offering.
The catsup is tangy accompaniement to chicken and turkey sandwiches. It is canned on a small-scale by Becker and her helpers, who operate Homespun in part of Jacques Blanc Academy, a French cooking school behind the Spring Valley Shopping Center, at 4822 1/2 Yuma Street N.W. A nine-ounce jar of the cranberry catsup is $4.50.
Of course, it's easier to go to the supermarket, but then your cellophane-encased treats would be carbon copies of each other. Expand your Halloween repertoire by supporting businesses close to home. Your efforts will be remembered long after the front-door ghosts and goblins have vanished.