Saturday August 31st Honor the Gravenstein Apple: more than the usual fun at the market

Every year Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market celebrates the Gravenstein Apple.   This year the August 24th party includes tastings, fresh pressed apple juice, crafts for kids and lively music.

Lee Walker brings Gravensteins and thirty other varieties of apple to the Santa Rosa Original Certified Market each.   His efforts are written up in this wonderful LA Times article

“Today only one commercial shipper of fresh Gravensteins remains in Sebastopol, 80-year-old Lee Walker. As he related on a recent visit to his orchard, his ancestor Joseph Walker discovered Yosemite Valley in 1833, a little more than a decade after Russian settlers introduced the Gravenstein to Fort Ross, on the Sonoma coast. Joseph’s brother settled in Sebastopol about 1850 and raised cattle and apples on 7,000 acres. A neighbor named Griffeth established the first real Gravenstein orchard in the 1880s, and in 1910, Lee Walker’s maternal grandfather planted the Gravensteins on the home ranch where we strolled.

Lee and his son now farm 50 acres of apples, about half of them Gravensteins, which are easy to spot because the trees are huge. Partly because it’s a triploid, with three sets of chromosomes instead of the usual two, Gravenstein trees on seedling rootstock grow 20 feet high or more, too tall for convenient access — one of several quirks that caused the variety’s decline, despite its excellent flavor and versatility. ” read more

The fresh pressed apple juice is provided by Slow Food Russian River

“…if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.”

                                                                                          – Luther Burbank, renown horticulturist

by Michael Elinson

The storied history of the Gravenstein apple has all the elements of a great read – discovered along the Denmark border in 1669 as a chance seedling, introduced by German immigrants to North America in 1790, then brought to Northern California by Russian fur traders in the 1800s.

By the early 1900s, thousands of Gravenstein orchards were established and the apple had become the heart of a major industry in Sonoma County as dryers, canners, apple cider and apple brandy producers took advantage of its suitability for processing. During World War II, American soldiers abroad were provided with applesauce and dried apples produced from Gravensteins grown in Sebastopol, turning the apple into an icon for the town.

Gravensteins ripen in late July – making it one of the first apples in North America ready for market. The Grav is a squat, irregularly-shaped apple with a short stem that comes in a variety of colors; most commonly, though, with a greenish yellow background covered with broad red stripes. With a crisp and juicy texture, full of old-fashioned, sweet and tart flavor, it’s widely-regarded as the best all-purpose apple for sauce, pies and crisps; naturally delicious plucked ripe from the tree and eaten fresh as nature intended.

Like any page turner, our story unfolds to embody elements of vulnerability and adversity.

The staggered ripening of fruit presents a challenge for picking during a brief harvest season; and once harvested, Gravs are extremely delicate and highly-perishable – they do not travel well, nor keep their integrity for long. The fruit is losing market share due to an alarming loss of land, as orchards are being converted to vineyards. During the past six decades, Sonoma County’s Gravenstein orchards have declined by nearly 7,000 acres, currently down to about 500…and counting!  When you add to this scenario the economic realities of apple growing – pound for pound Pinot Noir grapes fetch four times the market price – it’s easy to understand why the survival of the Gravenstein apple is in jeopardy. Adding insult to injury, growers say a huge part of the demise of the Gravs and the USA apple market, in general, is the flooding of our country with apple juice concentrate from China used to make cheap juice drinks for the masses.

Some of the apple orchards grow on land that been the property of apple farming families for generations while others are operated by tenant farmers. These farmers rely on the support of landowners who who could sell their land for grape production but have decided that the area’s apple tradition is more important than personal financial gain. Only a dozen commercial growers and two commercial processors remain in Sonoma County. Production is now only a tiny fraction of its historic high levels, and continues to diminish as small farmers struggle to market their heirloom fruit.

If this were a novel? it would be nothing short of a tragedy. But you can take heart, Dear Reader, for the last chapter has not yet been written!

For close to 10 years, a small cadre of true believers have sought to slow the erosion of Gravenstein apple orchard production. Under the auspices of the aptly-named Slow Food Russian River Convivium, a regional chapter of Slow Food USA, the Save the Gravensteins Presidium – nicknamed The Apple Core – works to promote and protect farmers who nurture their apples from tree to table. Inherent in this mission is a mandate to create and propagate a lively demand for this true delicacy through ongoing educational efforts and seasonal awareness campaigns.

FAQ: What can I do to help preserve the Gravenstein apple for generations to come?

Answer: Seek out Gravensteins at roadside stands! Ask for Gravensteins by name at your local market. Plant a Gravenstein apple tree (or three) in your backyard. Visit our local farmer’s markets this month to taste freshly-pressed Gravenstein apple juice. Support educational programs about Sonoma County’s heritage apples in your schools. Bake a Gravenstein apple pie or crisp with your children. Take a bite out of one today. Slow down and enjoy life!

To volunteer or make a donation: info@slowfoodrr.org

Source material provided by Slow Food Russian River, Cittaslow Sebastopol and The Apple Core.