What does history taste like? For some lucky Californians, it tastes like the sweet-tart, aromatic Gravenstein apple.
First planted in Northern California by Russian trappers in 1811—nearly four decades before California became a state—the Gravenstein thrived in the mild coastal climate of Sonoma County. Along with hops (used for flavoring beer) and prune plums, Gravenstein apples were a major part of Sonoma’s thriving agricultural economy. In the early part of the 20th century, apple packing sheds and canning factories were common sights around Sebastopol, the heart of Sonoma’s apple industry. Thousands of acres were devoted to apple orchards.
Then in the early 2000s, the grapes arrived. As the wine industry flourished in neighboring Napa County, Sonoma County farmers and landowners realized that they, too, had excellent soil and an ideal climate for grape-growing. Acre for acre, ton for ton, high-end wine grapes could command a much more lucrative return on investment than apples. Vineyards were planted where many orchards had flourished.
But the grape didn’t take over entirely. Small organic farms found their niche selling apples directly to restaurants and farmers markets. The craft-beer crowd rediscovered hard cider, and small-scale cider makers drove demand for local apples, especially interesting heirloom varieties that would make their products stand out from the sweet, bland ciders made for the wine-cooler crowd.
Meanwhile, Slow Food USA—part of a larger movement, started in Italy, to preserve and promote heritage foods—was initiating a project called Slow Food Presidia, aimed at protecting and promoting not just unique heritage foods but the people and way of life surrounding them. And Slow Food Russian River, one of the country’s most active Slow Food chapters, was trying to revive interest in the once-thriving, now nearly vanished Gravenstein apple.
The Gravenstein apple became the focus of one of Slow Food’s four Presidia projects, and over the past two decades, the motto “Save the Gravenstein” has become not only a bumper sticker, but also a rallying call for agricultural biodiversity, one apple at a time.
Slow Food works hard to save this heirloom apple because the Gravenstein has a lot to recommend it: an early ripening date that makes it the first apple of the season; a complex, aromatic flavor; a tender texture that’s great for sauce, juice, and pies as well as eating out of hand. The green variety is more tart; the red is sweeter. It’s a pretty apple, too, plump and round, striped green and red, or red and yellow. But unlike a Red Delicious or a Granny Smith, it doesn’t flourish in cold storage; it’s an apple for eating here and now, not for long keeping, more delicate than its supermarket cousins.
The town of Sebastopol hosts the Gravenstein Apple Fair every August, featuring an apple pie–baking contest, an apple pie–eating contest, cider tastings, and apple-focused cooking demonstrations from local chefs. Under the spreading oak trees of Ragle Ranch Park, local bakeries and civic organizations set up tents selling apple fritters, apple doughnuts, apple pies, and crates and crates of fresh Gravenstein apples. There are soft-nosed lambs and calves to pet, old tractors to admire, bands for everyone young and old to dance to. The festival usually occurs within the first two weeks of August.
But if you can’t make it to Sonoma County for the fair, you can still support local family farms and taste this remarkable heirloom apple for yourself. The FruitGuys has partnered with Slow Food Russian River to offer a Gravenstein Apple Box, featuring apples grown by three longtime Sonoma farms: Devoto Gardens, Hale’s Apple Farm, and Walker Apples. Sixteen percent of the proceeds of these boxes will be donated back to the farmers to help them preserve this unique variety.
Order yours here: fruitguys.com/gravenstein.
“We’ve been honored to offer this benefit for Gravenstein farmers and enthusiasts since 2006,” says Chris Mittelstaedt, founder and CEO of The FruitGuys. “We hope to continue to excite people about this heirloom apple, its heritage and history, and bring it to those interested in preserving—and eating—this national agricultural treasure.”
Stan Devoto, organic apple farmer and owner of Devoto Gardens and Orchards, says, "The FruitGuys have made it possible for our farm to continue farming Gravenstein apples in Sonoma County. They are offering us sustainable prices for our products, and have helped us by subsidizing a new planting of apples on our farm."
Gravenstein Apple Slaw
Recipe by Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen
3 Gravenstein apples, cored, thinly sliced
Juice of 1 lemon or lime
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons grapeseed or olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 cups finely shredded red cabbage
1 cup finely shredded green cabbage
1 cup grated carrots
4 scallions, finely chopped, or ½ small red onion, thinly sliced
1 jalapeno pepper, halved, seeds removed, thinly sliced
⅓ cup chopped cilantro or parsley leaves
- Toss apple slices with lemon juice and set aside. Whisk together vinegar, oil, honey, salt and pepper; taste for seasoning.
- In a large bowl, toss together cabbage, carrots, scallions, apple, and jalapeno. Pour dressing over slaw and mix well.
- Chill until ready to serve. Just before serving, mix in cilantro or parsley.
Serves 4–6. Prep time, 20 minutes.
To order a box of Gravenstein apples for yourself, your family, a friend, or a colleague, visit fruitguys.com/gravenstein. Savor the flavor while you support a farmer and help preserve a very special heirloom apple!
Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a Sonoma-based writer. She is a past Grand Champion of the Gravenstein Apple Fair’s pie-baking contest. Her books include Honey from Flower to Table, World of Doughnuts, and the upcoming A Little Taste of San Francisco.