A drive among the apple orchards this time of year is a nasal treat, the species most identified with Sonoma County is the Gravenstein, an odd ball among the hundreds of commercial apple varieties, it has a very short shelf life and is one of the earliest apples harvested in mid-summer. The first thing you notice is a strong, sweet odor, then you see the huge circles of unharvested fruit on the ground under the trees slowly rotting back into the soil. The Gravenstein (Grav to locals) has a light green to bright yellow skin with red stripes running vertical to the core. Orchards of apple can be difficult to find at times; most apple trees have been replaced by miles and miles of vineyards. Try driving around the country lanes west of Sebastopol and follow your nose. Alternatively, you will find them in the market this time of year for a few more weeks. The best deal is in the bulk boxes, four by four plywood bins. A favorite spot is the fruit stand in Fulton on River Road or at several locations that host ‘farm-stand’ produce.
There are three products that capture the exotic taste of Gravenstein perfectly; apple sauce, home canning is easy, dehydration yields a tasty, chewy substitute and then there is the pie. Grav apple pie is beyond description, it has a mysterious flavor unlike any other apple pie. Texture and shelf life are two issues with this unique apple. Freezing this apple breaks down its cells into pulpy goo. No matter how you cook it, the Grav-apple breaks down into applesauce, ideal for apple bread and apple cake, not so great for storage. Keep them in a paper bag in the back of your refrigerator, if you start with firm apples they may last to Thanksgiving. One exceptional fresh use is to peel and core, one or two Gravs per person, slice coarsely into a sauce pan, cover and simmer for ten minutes, remove the lid and continue to cook for an additional ten minutes, you can add a bit of cinnamon, a grating of nutmeg and/or sugar. Scoop a helping of ice cream into bowls and pour on the hot applesauce. Your mouth will be very happy. If you decide to can applesauce it gets even easier, just heat some in the microwave and apply liberally to ice cream. Don’t miss out on the incredible taste of the Gravenstein, a local gem.
Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is the former president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association. Look for his column in The Community Voice each week.