In a tiny window of summer between July and the first week of September, the branches of the county’s few remaining Gravenstein apple orchards sag heavily with this precious fruit. In farmer’s markets, restaurants and even a handful of dirt lots by the side of the road, you’ll find baskets of these tart red and green flecked apples for sale. But don’t dawdle, because within a week or two, they’ll be gone until next year.
At Dutton Ranch, one of the area’s largest producers of these historic apples, most have already been harvested according to owner Joe Dutton. They’ll sell out sof whatever’s left in the next ten days. Snapping up what they can get, a handful of restaurants are offering sweet desserts that take advantage of the last of the harvest, including John Ash & Co. (4330 Barnes Road, Santa Rosa, 527-7687) who are offering a Gravenstein & thyme infused cocktail and a Gravenstein Upside-down cake with salted caramel gelato; Petite Syrah’s (205 5th St., Santa Rosa, 568-4002) Gravenstein apple cake with buttermilk ice cream and Zazu’s Restaurant’s (3535 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa, 523-4814) Gravenstein apple pie and Hole in the Wall Cafe’s Gravenstein Apple caramel crepe (972 Gravenstein Highway S, Sebastopol, 861-3777). You may also be lucky enough to stumble on a few remaining apples at weekend farm markets and grocery stores.
So why seek out the humble Gravenstein? Small, delicate, short-stemmed (making them difficult to harvest) and subject to imperfection, they’re hardly the prom queens of the apple world. A slight breeze can throw a significant portion to the ground and the apple’s delicate nature makes it turn mealy and soft within a week or two of harvesting. Bigger, sturdier, more uniform breeds like Granny Smith, Jonagolds, Red Delicious and Galas that can be more easily jostled and transported from far off places (like New Zealand and Chile) tend to make it into our shopping carts more frequently.
But one bite of the historic Grav’s fresh, complex sweet and tart taste, and most folks are hooked. The breathy aromas beckons, and there’s a kick of local history that comes with each bite. Russian traders were credited with planting the region’s the first orchards near Fort Ross in the early 1800′s. The reputation of these early-ripening apples were bolstered by the work of horticulturist Luther Burbank and because it was one of the first apples to make it to market each year, became a major cash crop for Sebastopol. By World War II, West County’s 8,000-plus acres of orchards made it a significant producers of US apples through the middle of the 20th century.
Sadly, the biodiversity of apples throughout the world has shrunk to a handful of easily harvested species, and only a handful of local growers remain in the region. With increasing demand for higher-profit wine grapes squeezing out old orchards, these too are in danger of vanishing. To raise awareness about the apple’s plight, the Sebastopol Gravenstein has been inducted into the Ark of Taste, a collection of regional foods considered in danger of extinction by the members of Slow Food. The Sebastopol organization of Slow Foods, called the Gravenstein Apple Presidia, is tasked with increasing awareness of the apple and promoting farmers who grow them. The apple is also celebrated each year at Sebastopol’s Gravenstein Apple Fair, held in August.
If you miss the last fresh Gravenstein’s of the year, seek out limited production Apple-Ation from winemaker Guy Davis, who is distilling several varieties of the historic apples from Dutton Ranch into an ultra-premium apple brandy. It’s a labor-intensive process of hand-picking and sorting the apples, then fermenting them (with seeds, skin and stems), then distilling the essence of the apple mash and finally oak-barrel aging. Only about 1800 bottles are made, and it’s strong stuff at 80-proof, but there’s no mistaking the powerful apple aroma and flavor. ($35, 52 Front Street, Healdsburg, 433-3858). Nana Mae’s Organics, also a grower of the Gravenstein’s, offers apple sauce and apple juice at grocery stores throughout the year.
Want to find out more about the Gravenstein apple? Check out Slow Food Russian River at slowfoodrr.org.