Seasonal Alert: Gravensteins! An heirloom apple to reckon with

ideal for making  applesauce and (when very fresh) Always Right Apple Pie and Big Chunky Apple Cake  with Pecans, among other baked items, also terrific fried in butter – to say nothing of simply eating out of hand.

I was actually shopping for tomatoes to sample (our bout with the blight means we’ll be buying whatever I put up for the winter), when there right in front of me among the more usual offerings  were bags of Gravensteins.

YAY!

They're called Red Gravensteins, I guess because that's easier than " the strain of Gravenstein that's green with stipplings and smudges of red and red-orange

They’re called Red Gravensteins, I guess because that’s easier than ” the strain of Gravenstein that’s green with stipplings and smudges of red and red-orange”

This happy discovery was made at Schoolhouse Farm, in Warren, Maine. The owner, Bill Beckwith, has a high opinion of  Gravensteins for fresh eating. He put in the trees 25 years ago and has continued to sell the fruit, even though it’s not a fast mover. “Not very many people know about them,” he said.

Gravensteins are the first early apples with real sweet-tart apple flavor, able to hold their own for deliciousness with the best of the later harvest, although they’re far less firm. But their season is short; they don’t keep well – in fact they hardly keep at all –  and almost all of the commercial crop is grown in California.

On the Slow Food Ark of Taste they’re called ” Sonoma Gravensteins,” and I learned to love them in my Berkeley days, so they’re sort of California in my mind, too. Yet there’s no reason the left coast should claim them.

Or at least there didn’t use to be. Gravensteins came to the US from Northern Europe ( exactly where therein unknown), early in the 19th century, and they probably landed on the West and East coasts at about the same time. Maine apple expert John Bunker’s  local orchard history, Not Far From The Tree, points out that by the 1880’s they were, in their season, the most popular apple in the state.

They’re still a major commercial fruit in parts of  Nova Scotia, and that would lead into discussing “local” as meaning “from the bioregion,” except that I think I’ll go make a pie, having read in Not Far From The Tree:

” It is frequently mentioned as the best of all pie apples. I had a wonderful conversation a few years ago with Mary Jones who had recently won the Maine State Pie Championship with a Gravenstein pie. She described in detail all she went through to save the apples until the January State Championship.”

I’ve only been saving ’em since yesterday, but why wait? There’s a whole parade of heirloom apples headed in our direction along with the onset of autumn.

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6 Comments »

  • Ali Said,

    Yay indeed. I’ve given husband orders to stop in Warren on the way home from school today and get some. Thanks for the alert!

    • Leslie Said,

      Glad to hear it, Ali… and please tell husband to keep his eye out for the Wolf Rivers. Mr. Beckwith kept the 2 trees that came with the place when he bought it, so there’s a brief window of big fat baking apples that were once very common and are now hard to get.

  • Anna Said,

    Waaaaah! I want to be in Maine buying apples!

    • Leslie Said,

      Anna –

      My sympathies; but where are you? Are there no nifty apples in your neck of the woods? If the answer is “no, there aren’t,” you’re probably in apricot and/or fig territory and I hate you.

  • Ann Said,

    They are indeed Sonoma County apples. The Danish or German immigrants brought them and they are grown all over my county; particularly in an area called Sebastopol. I work on Gravenstein Hwy, in fact.

    The apples are the earliest apples to appear (August), are not at all good keepers; but make the best applesauce. There are two kinds of Gravs: red and then just Gravensteins; they taste about the same, but the red are slightly sweeter. Many people like them in pies, but in my opinion they just make soup; great tasting soup, but I like a firmer apple in pies.

    • Leslie Said,

      Hi Ann

      Thanks for confirming why the Ark of Taste assigns them to your side of the country ( although I still maintain that’s an accident of survival).

      Know what you mean about the pie, since I go back and forth, mostly landing in your camp. But there’s a reference somewhere to Mark Twain being homesick for “mush apple pie,” when he was traveling in Europe, and I know from the folks who prefer it that there’s definitely a constituency for the sort of melting texture Gravensteins produce as soon as they’ve been off the tree for longer than about a week – and right away if they’re picked too ripe, which seems to be quite common. Mixing the Gravensteins with something firm like Cortland or ( my own personal favorite for pie) Rhode Island Greening makes a nice texture counterpoint, so if you’re fond of Gravenstein flavor you might want to try it.

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