Apple season is soon coming upon us and after the onslaught of summer stonefruit, I always look forward to slicing a crisp apple into my salads or making cheese/apple snacks. One of the first apples to hit the market, my all-time favorite, is the Gravenstein apple. Surprisingly, I didn’t think twice about the Gravenstein until last year when I discovered its deep-rooted history in Sonoma County. Intrigue led to consumption and consumption to obsession.
The Gravenstein apples grown is Sebastopol are heralded as one of the best-flavored and most versatile apples — they can be used in baking, saucing, juicing and fermenting. During the three- to four-week harvest season in August, Sonoma County’s Gravensteins exhibit a complex and ever-changing flavor unlike Gravensteins grown elsewhere. Early in the season the Gravenstein is green and tart; but by season’s end it has a yellowish hue with red striping and becomes crisper, sweeter and spicier in flavor.
During field work for my master’s degree, I found myself standing in the middle of Stan Devoto’s apple orchard in Sebastopol with Paula Shatkin, leader of the Slow Food’s Gravenstein Apple Presidium. It was July and the apples were still small and green but the trees were old, gnarly and beautiful. Walking up and down the orchard rows, I learned how the Gravenstein came to the Sonoma area with Russian fur traders in the early 1800’s and how by the mid-1900’s there were over 16,000 acres of Gravensteins planted in the warm and fertile hills of Sonoma County. It used to be that over the Gravenstein’s brief season of ripening, it was commonplace for families to pick up many boxes of Gravensteins to be taken home for processing. During the Vietnam War, the government bought dried or sauced Gravensteins for soldiers’ rations. Sebastopol’s apple industry boomed during that era; every orchard had an apple drier and there were several local processing plants.
Despite the Gravenstein’s success, growers had to deal with a finicky fruit that could be highly perishable and did not stand up to being shipped fresh. With the end of the Vietnam War and its canning era, Gravenstein growers lost a significant portion of their market. At the same time, increasing competition from Washington’s apple industry meant apple processors were only offering growers pennies per pound for Gravensteins, barely making it worth picking them. By 1990—after years of losing money on their apples—many growers opted to turned their orchards into vineyards or sell their land to wineries.
There now stands fewer than 800 acres of Gravenstein orchards in the County. Driving along the Gravenstein Highway, I am saddened to see freshly planted vineyards and the abandoned apple driers, it reminds me that there was once a time when communities made an effort to buy food grown by their neighbors, preserve it in their kitchens and pass the tradition onto their children. Yet, despite my sadness, there is work being done to maintain and grow Gravenstein acreage. The Gravenstein Apple Presidium is working hard with various community organizations and farmers to revive a profitable market for Sebastopol Gravensteins. Annually, there is the Gravenstein Apple fair in August and I even saw an independent kombucha company making a ‘Save the Gravenstein Kombucha’. This year and every year that Gravensteins are still available, I will happily bring four or five boxes home from the farmers’ market, peel them, cook them down, jar them up and eat the best apple sauce ever all while knowing that I am eating the apples to save the apples from extinction.
For more information: http://www.slowfoodrr.org/localprojects.html#apple; http://gravensteinapplefair.com/