Sunday, August 24, 2008

The best apple ever

Gravenstein apple 1
Fresh-picked naturey perfection

I grew up in northern Sonoma county in northern California, and was lucky enough to spend a lot of time during my formative years at my grandparents' house near the town of Sonoma. They have a bit of property out in the country, which includes an amazing garden and orchard full of fruit trees. I was also lucky enough to have a mother and grandmother who cook and bake exceptionally well (though perhaps my teenage angst over my weight wouldn't agree with me...), so I grew up with Gravenstein apple pie, apple sauce, apple strudel, and apple kuchen, as well as a bounty of other local, home-grown fruit desserts. Gravenstein apples, however, are something...a little special (imagine some sort of cheesy TV special pause there...oh yeah, we keep it classy here).

The Gravenstein apple, named for the German translation of the region in Denmark from which it originated, was introduced to the western coast of the U.S. by Russian fur traders in 1820 at Fort Ross (which, incidentally, is an awesome place for a picnic). The heirloom Gravenstein variety is now grown in only a select few areas in the world: Denmark, Austria, and the U.S., particularly near the little town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County, California. They're pale green which gets streaked with red as they ripen, and are sweet-tart, squat, crisp little beauties, and the taste of a Gravenstein instantly brings a flood of memories of summer, loamy Sonoma dirt heated by hot Sonoma sun, and the smells of my grandma's kitchen. (Yes, some of my childhood was indeed very idyllic.)

Gravensteins are apples the way apples should be: not mushy but not tooth-achingly hard to bite into, tart but not puckery, sweet but not cloying, small enough for a snack but large enough to satisfy. Even if you're not an apple fan, if you have a chance, try a Gravenstein.

Gravenstein apple 2
Plump little beauties

Gravensteins used to be part a major source of income in Sonoma county, but unfortunately, because of the rapid (and short-sighted, but that's a different entry) expansion of the wine industry in Sonoma during the last century, vineyards have come to dominate the valley landscape and the Gravenstein is now in danger of going extinct. It doesn't help that Gravensteins are notoriously delicate and perish quickly...not exactly an ideal candidate for supermarkets that are across the country and want their fruit to travel well. The short harvest season (late July to early August) also make them difficult to grow commercially. This is why you won't find them in most grocery stores, even in and around Sonoma. Because of all these factors, according to Slow Food USA, "Sonoma county's Gravenstein orchards have declined by almost 7,000 acres and are currently down to 960 acres. There are only six commercial growers remaining in Sonoma County." I've RARELY seen Gravensteins anywhere outside of Sonoma county, and only once outside of California. Which is a shame, because they're so damn good, I wish everyone everywhere could enjoy them. These apples are, I shit you not, one of the reasons I was most excited to move back to California. Just another reason to support your local farmers, people.

Really the only way to get this apple outside of Sonoma is as sauce. They make the most lovely homemade applesauce, tart and slightly green tinted and smooth, nothing like the pulpy, over-sweetened dreck you get in jars at the supermarket. Happily, Trader Joe's has a really good unsweetened Gravenstein applesauce that's pretty damn good, and it works excellently in baking recipes that call for applesauce (such as the Applesauce-Oat Bran Muffins from Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz & Terry Hope Romero, or German Apple Cake from The Joy of Vegan Baking by Colleen Patrick Goudreau). I used my grandma's applesauce to make the Apple-Cinnamon Swirl Pancakes from FatFree Vegan Kitchen, which were delicious, and they rocked my world hardcore this morning. You can also use applesauce as a fat replacer in many baking recipes. If you are lucky enough to be living in the Bay Area, farmer's markets as well as some locally-owned grocery stores (such as Monterey Market on Hopkins in Berkeley) sell Gravensteins.

Anyway, what else does one use these cutie-patooties for? Gravensteins are an excellent apple for pretty much any kind of cooking or baking. On page 147 of The Joy of Vegan Baking by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau there's a neat chart of "Apples and Their Uses" and Gravensteins rate as "very good" or "excellent" in everything except "Baking (whole)", in which they rate only "Good." And the pie, oh dear god, the pie is simply heaven in a crispy crust. The apples are smallish so they make great pie-sized slices, and taste divine with all that cinnamon and nutmeg. They hold their form well during baking so you still have structure and texture intact. They are the apples of my eye.

My grandma gave me apples upon apples when I moved back, so here's what I did with them:

Fruit salad

Gravenstein apple pie with WW crust
Apple pie (Joy of Vegan Baking, 1,000 Vegetarian Recipes)
(Yes I realize it's a bit burnt, it was good anyway)

Rustic apple tart
Cheater's rustic apple tart (Joy of Vegan Baking, 1,000 Vegetarian Recipes)

Apple Cobber (JoVB)
Apple cobbler (Joy of Vegan Baking)

Convinced yet that Gravensteins are the best ever? If not, what's wrong with you?

Check back soon for my and Kelly's recent endeavor to pop our collective seitan-making cherries!


The Joy of Vegan Bakingy by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

1 comment:

e said...

Sold me, although good apples aren't due around here for another moment or two. Washington provides amply, as you well know, but no Gravensteins that I've ever (graven)seen. There are some Ginger Golds afoot, but the Pink Ladies won't be in for a spell. Ah well. I'll look out for the 'steins, though.