“The Gravensteins are almost ripe,” I emailed my mother. “Want some?”
“We’ll be down after dinner,” came the reply five minutes later.
Still farming at eighty, my parents hadn’t had time to come to dinner for a long time. But they would drop everything and drive two hours for a bucket of Gravenstein apples.
Who wouldn’t? As Luther Burbank wrote, “It has often been said that if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.” This broad green apple, often striped with red, is wonderfully tart, sweet, juicy, and aromatic. It ripens early, beginning in late July, to provide first aid from the long hunger for fresh apples. The Gravenstein isn’t a keeper; its short stem often makes it fall; and its moist, crisp flesh bruises easily. But there are plenty of good ways to preserve this apple, bruised or not. I believe it makes the very best sauce, butter, pies, sweet cider, and hard cider.
The Gravenstein got its name in the seventeenth century in a German-speaking area of what is now Denmark (some say the scion came from Italy or southern Tyrol). Danes still so love the Gravenstein–though they usually call it the Gråsten–that the Danish food minister declared it the national apple in 2005. Russian otter hunters apparently planted it, along with other fruits, at Fort Ross on the northern California coast in 1820, and their orchard became the foundation of a thriving Sonoma County apple industry. Growing up in Santa Rosa, I ate little besides Gravensteins for a month every summer.
Sadly, California apple orchards have been pushed out by housing tracts, vineyards, and imports of apple-juice concentrate from China. Only 900 acres of Gravenstein orchards remain in Sonoma County, and the only other sizeable North American Gravenstein production is in Nova Scotia (although the eastern Gravenstein seems to me a different apple–smaller, redder, and less tasty). Slow Food recently listed the Sebastopol Gravenstein in the Ark of Taste, its catalog of “forgotten flavors.”
Although the Gravenstein prefers a cool, coastal climate, it does grow elsewhere. It is a favorite backyard tree in the Willamette Valley, where in my flat, low-lying orchard I get a crop at least every other year. This year’s crop is big. The apples may not be as good as Sonoma County Gravensteins, but they are very, very good.
If somebody offers you apples in mid-August or earlier, there’s a good chance they’ll be Gravensteins. If they start softening faster than you can eat them, here’s what to do: Peel, core, and slice them, and freeze them for pies and crisps. Or heat the pieces in a covered pot; soon you’ll have applesauce with a heavenly fragrance and texture—forget the mashing or pureeing. Do you hate peeling and coring apples? Then simply cut them into pieces before cooking them. Sieve out the skins and seeds, add sweet cider or brown sugar or both along with spices, and cook the purée uncovered until it becomes a thick apple butter, a fine treat to put away for winter breakfasts. If you’re lucky enough to have several boxes of Gravensteins, press them into cider yourself (you can rent a crusher and press from a brewing-supplies store); it will be the best you’ve ever tasted, and it will ferment to an outstanding hard cider with no other varieties added. Before the cider ferments, if you like, boil some down into an amazing no-sugar-added syrup or jelly.
If you are so unlucky to lack a Gravenstein tree, or any friend with a Gravenstein tree, hope is not lost. Gather your nursery catalogs, and start figuring out where you’ll plant your own Gravenstein tree this coming winter.