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Nick Cowles apple pies at Shelburne Orchards.
One of Nick Cowles's apple pies available at Shelburne Orchards. (Caleb Kenna for the Globe.)

When life gives you apples, make pie

SHELBURNE, Vt. -- Blowtorch in hand, Nick Cowles stands ready to start up his oven. It's a giant thing, and it's about to be filled with 36 pies. Each is made with apples from Cowles's orchard, along with Vermont maple syrup, sealed inside crisp, buttery pastry -- just like any grandma might make. But that's where any comparison with grandma ends.

This pie baker, his curly brown and gray hair slightly unruly, is 6 foot 5. He seems strong enough to move one of the trees on Shelburne Orchards, which has been in his family since the 55-year-old baker was a small boy.

With a bit of Cortland mashed into one trouser leg, Cowles is wearing a green T-shirt with the outline of a tractor and ``Vermont Farmer" written across it. And while apples are his business, pies are his passion. Or rather, ``a good, big pie," as he puts it.

Cowles's pies are made in his impressively large oven, called the Ever-Love'n Oven. ``Naming things gives them a personality," explains the pie guy. ``They are no longer just things." A solid block of black metal with patches of rust, the oven measures 5 feet wide, 5 feet high, and 3 feet deep and has three rectangular baking compartments.

The oven is relatively new to the orchard, at least compared with Lucy, a forklift that's been on the farm since Cowles was a boy. The Ever-Love'n Oven, a 1966 Blodgett commercial oven, built to accommodate pizzas, has been on the property for six years.

Cowles discovered the big oven in an old barn and dance hall in Charlotte, which is one town over. The oven stood unused in the Old Lantern for years, he says, on an enclosed porch, surrounded by empty beer bottles and junk. ``I couldn't even get in there to tell if it worked," he says. Cowles figures the room must have been built around the oven.

``When I first approached the owners," he says, ``I thought I could get it for the cost of trucking it away. But they were interested in trying to sell it if they could." A year later, Cowles ran into one of the owners. The oven still hadn't sold. ``Well, will you give me somethin' for it?" Cowles remembers the owner asking him. Cowles offered him $100 and wrote the check on the spot.

Then came the move, which involved Cowles's flat-bed truck, Lucy the forklift, hammers, and a crowbar. ``The owners still don't know how we got it out of there," Cowles says. What happened was that he and his longtime co-worker Terry Hotaling took one side of the barn right off, and then put it back on again. They used Lucy to lift out the oven. In the end, the empty bottles and trash were left right where they were. ``Turns out the oven worked perfectly," Cowles says. To get it started, a valve is turned, a red safety button pushed, and a blowtorch used to fire up two pilot lights.

In its new home, the oven stands on a stone-and-dirt patio next to the Donut House, where the orchard offers homemade cider doughnuts. A roof of corrugated metal, held up by both square cut wooden posts and twists of dried apple tree trunks, protects the Ever-Love'n Oven from the rain and snow.

Today, the orchard uses the oven to make and sell hundreds of pies. Since bringing the oven home, the orchard has added events including an annual pie festival and a men's pie-baking night.

``The oven got me thinking big," says Cowles. ``I got to thinking I could feed large numbers of people, and the festivals started to form in my mind. That's a powerful oven -- a whole lot of lovin'!"

Hence the name.

Shelburne Orchards pies ($15 each) are available at 216 Orchard Road, Shelburne, Vt., until Nov. 22. The pie festival will be held on Sept. 24, and the men's baking night on Nov. 21. For more orchard events, call 802-985-2753 or go to shelburneorchards.com.

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