If ever there were a top contender for the title of “Mr. Autumn Man,” the fictional, fall-loving Massachusetts character popularized by the satirical website The Onion, it would be Alex Schwartz.
Like many hearty New Englanders who switch to pumpkin spice lattes the moment Labor Day has passed, Schwartz savors the first signs of the cooler season.
But his passion for the changing weather goes beyond just wearing plaid and leaf-peeping (though he enjoys these things, too). The Cambridge resident is on an all-consuming pursuit: Find the absolute best apple cider doughnuts in the region and share that information with the world.
For the second year in a row, Schwartz is hitting the road and traveling to as many farms, orchards, and roadside stands as he can, testing the cinnamon sugar-sprinkled treats each has to offer, and posting reviews and musings about the tasty confections — and his environs — to his Instagram account, @ciderdonuteur.
He’s also created an exhaustive, interactive map that pinpoints more than 191 spots in New England that make and sell the seasonal offerings so that others can take cider doughnut road trips of their own.
“People just need something that they can enjoy,” said Schwartz, 34, cofounder of a tech company. “And I think cider doughnuts are just universally lovable.”
As a native of Connecticut who has lived in the Boston area for years, apple cider doughnuts have been “a part of my life since I was a young lad,” Schwartz said.
But his idea to start seeking out and reviewing them began during the pandemic last year, as he yearned for an escape from the confines — and boredom — of home.
“We were stuck in our house and trying to figure out socially distanced outdoor activities, and fall was coming, and I said, ‘I want to go and have these fried nuggets of pure joy in my life because life has not been pure joy recently,’” he said. “I started combining hiking trips out in Western Mass., and Southern New Hampshire with, ‘I wonder if I can get a cider doughnut as a treat after exercising.’”
His search evolved into a full-blown project. Once he realized there were few online resources for finding the best doughnut spots, he began cataloging his experiences on Instagram, which led to the creation of the map, a resource that’s relied on public input to identify must-try locations.
“[There’s] a religious war territory of passion for ‘Here’s the place I go to, and I had fond memories of,’” said Schwartz of the flood of suggestions he has received since he unveiled the map last September. “You get deeply passionate people.”
Last year, Schwartz sampled just over 30 doughnuts from various farms and orchards. But he’s hoping to surpass that number this fall. The clear winner last year was Russell Orchards in Ipswich.
Schwartz announced on Instagram last month that he was gearing up for his second tour of trying out doughnuts at picturesque New England destinations.
“GUESS WHAT TIME IT IS? That’s right. Cider doughnut season 2021 is upon us!” Schwartz wrote on Aug. 29. “This year has been another trash fire and our one solace is the simplicity, innocence, and pure unadulterated joy that is a small orchard farm store that dishes out hot fresh cider doughnuts on a cool autumn day. Dear lord don’t take this away from us.”
He has already made two excursions: One to Bolton Spring Farm, in Bolton, Mass., where the doughnuts were ”soft, savory, and a bit spongy in a really fantastic way,” and anotherto Rocky Ridge Orchard, in Bowdoin, Maine, which boasted a “fantastically cooked traditional style cider doughnut.”
Of course, not every apple cider doughnut is equal. So Schwartz — “a plaid-wearing autumn man” with a “life-long mission to try every cider doughnut” — has certain guidelines in place when it comes to which businesses he will visit for his reviews and add to his trusty map.
“Technically Star Market sells cider doughnuts — it’s just not the experience of a hot-off-the-fryer cider doughnut at a farm store or at an orchard,” he said. “It’s about both the doughnut quality and the quality of the experience of having that idyllic fall day and New England fall moment.”
He added, “You can eat a doughnut in a dirty parking lot, and it could be a 10 out of 10 doughnut, and a 2 out of 10 experience. So you have to add up all the parts.”
Schwartz’s perfect scenario might look something like this: He’s at an orchard, listening as the leaves rustle on the ground and a cool wind blows. In his hands is a bag of warm, sugar-covered doughnuts, still steaming from the fryer. As he gazes out over the apple trees beyond, he takes a bite.
It has the perfect hint of apple flavor and a good airy crumb.
“Everybody’s got their thing,” Schwartz said.