Apples

Gravensteins in the Russian River Valley
- Jock Soper, Healdsburg, CA

When Russian adventurers arrived in northern California in 1811, they planted grapes, and they planted apples. Both remain as part of the modern agricultural mix of the Russian River Valley, with grapes now more famous than apples. But among the vineyards, you can still find orchards of Gravenstein apple trees.

Slow Food USA, the domestic branch of the global movement to preserve local foods and flavors, has placed the Gravenstein Apple into its “Ark of Taste”, a biblical reference to saving precious things from the flood of industrialization. The proud Gravenstein shares the Ark with notable, but endangered, California fruits like the Blenheim Apricot, the Crane Melon, and the Meyer Lemon.

The exact origins of the Gravenstein Apple are lost in the mists of antiquity. The Russians may have found theirs at home, or in Italy, or in a rich farming region in the old German-Danish border lands. We know more certainly that the orchards of the Russian River Valley were planted with seeds and saplings from the old Russian orchard at Fort Ross. Later, legendary seed man Luther Burbank promulgated Gravensteins from his nurseries near Santa Rosa.

The Gravenstein Apple is red and green together, crisp, juicy, with both sweetness and tart acid accents – perfect for applesauce, apple pie, for salads, or for eating in hand with your picnic cheese and wine. One historian of apple culture reports that Gravensteins are one of the few apples that have “personality.” But the apples ripen early, grow close to the branch with short stems that make them a little hard to pick, and the thin skins mean they don’t store or ship as well as some of their better-known cousins.