Imagine an entire town devoted to apple pie. Soft, melting apple goodness under a buttery, flaky crust. Welcome to Julian, California, (population 1,500) about an hour east of San Diego. About a dozen bakeries, restaurants and cafes serve up their best version of the dessert. Many have developed hybrid pies to include cherries, berries or even mango.
I was getting my hair cut not far from Julian when the stylist told me about the pie town. How could anyone could resist? The next morning my partner and I revved up the BMW K1200LT motorcycle and leaned into winding roads leading up the mountain. As we climbed from an elevation of 1,000 feet in Temecula, Calif., to 4,200 feet in Julian the temperature dropped from 70 F to 49 F.
The temperature drop is key. Apple trees need cold winters and Julian has them. European settlers recognized that as an opportunity as early as 1851 and established apple orchards in this microclimate before a town was even founded.
The town came along after 1870 as two groups of settlers established homes. Five former confederate soldiers from Georgia — three Bailey brothers and their cousins the Julian brothers – moved into town. Around the same time freed slave Fred Coleman discovered gold and built the first road into the area.
Both gold and apples made the town famous. Gold was found in two separate locations. And award-winning apples were planted in more. While precious metal mining declined by 1900, the Julian apples went on to get national medals.
Locals claim Julian apples, at least 20 varieties, many heirloom — are still superior to those grown elsewhere, probably because of sugar content. Tests done on Julian apples averaged about 12 percent sugar content, according to one long-time grower. Meanwhile apples from elsewhere averaged a little above 10 percent.
The difference is attributed to Julian’s terroir – that special combination of climate and soil. In Julian soil is lightly acidic sandy loam that drains well, something apple trees prefer. And despite the Southern California location, the mountain weather has four distinct seasons with average winter temperatures dropping into the 30s and average summer temperatures reaching into the 80s.
While apples have always begat pies, Julian pie shops became a tourist attraction in the 1960s. Two of today’s biggest pie shops Mom’s and The Julian Pie Company were launched in the mid-1980s. Today pie destinations crowd between fashion boutiques and other shops in old western storefronts..
Unfortunately, changing climate (read “prolonged drought”) is devastating the fruit crops of unirrigated orchards in Julian. Only 200 acres of trees remain, down from 600 acres a century earlier. Fewer apples mean Julian pie makers have to turn to outside farmers for fruit within months of harvest. Real Julian apple pies are usually available from September through November.
As the era of the big apple growers was ending, the era of Julian pie shops was just beginning.