There’s just something about a crisp, juicy apple at peak season that takes me back in time. When I was a kid in Michigan, my family had a backyard apple tree, which was not only good for climbing, but also supplied us with a bounty of Golden Delicious apples. And it just wouldn’t have been fall without a visit to a cider mill, where pick-your-own apples and hot cider awaited.
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When I moved to Sonoma’s wine country I discovered a new apple to love: a local heirloom variety called the Gravenstein. Yellowish-green with red stripes, the Gravenstein has a sweet-tart flavor and a crisp texture. It’s a wonderfully versatile apple, great for pies, applesauce and just plain eating.
The Gravenstein originated in 17th-century Denmark, and Russian fur traders planted the first West Coast Gravenstein orchards in Fort Ross, Calif., in 1820. Cuttings and seeds from these trees were brought to nearby Sebastopol, in western Sonoma County, where they were used to start new orchards.
Warm, dry Sebastopol proved more hospitable to Gravensteins than chilly, coastal Fort Ross. By the early 1900s, Sebastopol was home to 11,000 acres of Gravensteins, and apple growing had become a major industry in Sonoma County.
Over the decades, however, Sonoma’s apple country became wine country, and today, only 477 acres of Gravensteins remain.
The trouble with Gravenstein apples
When you compare prices for grapes and Gravensteins, it’s not hard to understand why farmers are converting orchards to vineyards. According to the 2012 Sonoma County Crop Report, the average price per ton for Pinot Noir grapes was $3,014, while the price for Gravensteins was just $328 per ton.
Vineyards aren’t the Gravenstein’s only problem. The variety has a short season, from late July to mid-August, and the apples ripen at different times during the harvest period. It also has a short stem, causing apples to fall off the trees. Gravensteins don’t ship well, so they must be sold or processed close to home. Cheap Chinese imports of apple juice concentrate have also hurt the local market for juicing apples, including Gravensteins.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges, Paula Shatkin has made it her mission to save the Gravensteins.
“I moved here 13 years ago from Los Angeles, at the peak of the orchard conversion to vineyards,” she said. “You could drive down any road and see apple orchards being buzzsawed.”
Shatkin raised the issue at a meeting of the Russian River chapter of Slow Food USA, and suggested that the group do something to preserve the orchards. “Everybody looked at me and asked, ‘Well, why don’t you do something?’ she said. “So it became my baby.”
Shatkin applied to the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity in Italy, asking the organization to create a Presidium — a project funded by Slow Food to defend agricultural biodiversity — for Sebastopol’s Gravensteins.
“I went around Sebastopol taking pictures of all the things that are named ‘Gravenstein,’ like the Gravenstein Highway, and put that together with farmer interviews and the history of the Gravenstein apple to show that it has cultural and historical significance,” she said. “And I included statistics about the loss of orchards.”
In 2004, the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Presidium was launched. Out of 170 Presidia worldwide, five are based in the United States, and only one in California.
“Our mission has been to promote Gravensteins and educate people as to their value,” Shatkin said. “If we want farmers to grow and sell them commercially, we have to increase demand.”
In addition to media outreach, promotional efforts have included Gravenstein giveaways at local shops, hotels and the Sonoma County Airport. To create a market outside the region, Slow Food Russian River teamed up with The Fruit Guys, a national fruit delivery service, to offer an annual “Grav Box.”
“Demand for Gravensteins has really increased,” Shatkin said.
Farmers are also getting a slightly higher price for their crop than in previous years. Even so, the Gravenstein has a long way to go before it can compete with wine grapes.
Cider as savior
The solution may lie in the production of another fermented beverage made from local fruit: hard cider.
In 2011, Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli founded Tilted Shed Ciderworks in west Sonoma County, which uses only local heirloom and cider apples. Keeping Sebastopol’s apple tradition alive is a crusade for Cavalli, a member of Slow Food Russian River.
“I’m trying to connect with growers and put a new positive spin on the apple industry here,” she said. “The story for so long as been that the Gravensteins are on the verge of extinction, and you eat them to save them. But it’s almost this last-ditch effort, like nothing’s going to work. I wanted to tell people that we can transform this culture. We can be a premier cider region.”
If she didn’t believe that, she and Heath wouldn’t have moved out from New Mexico to open a cidery.
“I’ve been preaching this for a long time, and people were really resistant at first,” Cavalli said. “But they’re finally coming around because they’re seeing the explosion of cider in the U.S.”
They’re also hearing that in Washington state, where there’s a vibrant craft cider culture, traditional tannic cider apples are fetching $600 to $800 a ton.
“It’s still a small price compared to some of the premium wine grapes, but it’s sustainable,” Cavalli said. “I really believe that craft cider is here to stay.”
With this in mind, she’s working to persuade farmers to grow specialty cider apples in addition to Gravensteins. Tilted Shed is leading the way with its 2-acre cider apple farm in Sebastopol, planted as a proving ground. Cavalli and Heath show farmers which varieties work well, and offer to provide bud wood and help with grafting — and they’ll pay a premium for the apples.
Along with cider varieties, Tilted Shed uses a large proportion of Gravensteins for its acclaimed ciders. Even producers in the Northwest have taken notice. “The Gravenstein is actually in high demand up there,” Cavalli said. “I’ve got cider makers who have been asking, ‘Can you get us 10 bins of Gravs?’ ”
To build on the increased demand, Cavalli says she’d like to see more cider makers set up shop in Sebastopol. “To make it really successful there have to be more people doing what we’re doing,” she said. “There’s not going to be a whole lot of buy-in until the local growers see that there’s a long-term commitment to this.”
Perfect for pie
This pie recipe, passed down from my great-grandmother, is the perfect showcase for Gravenstein apples.
Grandma’s all-shortening crust isn’t my favorite, so I use the Foolproof Pie Dough recipe from America’s Test Kitchen.
Stacie Gould’s Apple Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
6 to 7 medium size apples
¾ to 1 cup sugar, plus one tablespoon
2 tablespoons instant tapioca
Dash of salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Foolproof Pie Dough
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon milk
1. Peel and cube apples.
2. Mix together ¾ cup to 1 cup sugar, tapioca, salt and spices; add to apples.
3. Arrange bottom crust in 9-inch pie pan and pour in apple mixture. Dot with butter.
4. Place top crust onto pie and crimp edges to seal. Cut a couple small vents into the crust to let steam escape.
5. Mix together 1 tablespoon sugar and milk in a small bowl. Brush on top crust.
6. Place pie in 400 F oven and bake 10 minutes.
7. Reduce heat to 350 F and bake an additional 50 minutes.
Top photo: Sebastopol’s Gravenstein apple is facing commercial extinction. Credit: Tina Caputo