Like the French prune and the white leghorn chicken, the Gravenstein apple is an agricultural icon in Sonoma County.
There was a time when this delicate late-summer apple -- reaching its flavor peak just about now -- was the focus of West County orchardists and the primary reason for a highly profitable apple-processing industry in and around Sebastopol.
A recent marriage between the fast-disappearing Gravenstein and the snail-paced slow-food movement may be the salvation of the few growers who have stayed with the fruit that both grandmotherly cooks and professional chefs avow makes the best pies and the best sauce of any apple grown anywhere.
All apples are under siege now that this is "Wine Country" as the local industry fades and the trees give away to vines.
Gravensteins, once the star of our orchards, have been fighting for a market niche in recent years against tough competition from sturdier varieties that ship better and last longer -- even if they don't taste as good.
Slow-food types have organized a cadre of Bay Area chefs and bakers to feature Gravensteins in salads, entrees and desserts through the harvest season. With the slow-foodies' determination, a good PR campaign and a lot of luck, it can work.
The origins of this apple are the stuff of legend. Some say it's a German apple, some say it's Danish. The oft-repeated legend has a Danish prince bringing an apple called Villa Blanc home from Italy in the 1600s to plant near his castle in the duchy of Schleswig-Holstein, which was sometimes German, sometimes Polish, sometimes Danish, depending on the political climate of Northern Europe.
The ties between the Russian and German royal families in the late 18th and early 19th centuries probably accounted for the Russian American Trading Co.'s choice of the Gravenstein as the variety to carry to their coastal outpost when Fort Ross was built in 1812. The trees, the first apples in Northern California, were planted in a hillside orchard within a mile of the coastal compound, along with pears, peaches, cherries and quince. William Benitz, who bought the fort when the Russians left in the 1840s, tended the trees, as did George Washington Call, who owned it from 1873 until the state of California bought it for a historical park in the early 1900s. Call shipped Gravensteins to market in San Francisco by schooner.
We get a first-person account of the orchard from the memoir of one of Call's daughters, Laura Call Carr. In "My Life at Fort Ross 1877-1907," she writes:
"Our favorite was from the trees planted by the Russians, an early, very juicy, striped apple, which we later learned was a Gravenstein. The cows and hogs ate those that fell from the trees. Some of the cows would shake the trees when they could reach the limbs. The men would later gather the apples, and they were stored on shelves in a cool dark building built for that purpose. We had apples until April."
The old trees are still there, near the state historical park, lovingly tended by volunteers.
After the influx of settlers to the North Coast prompted by the Gold Rush of the late 1840s, more than one immigrant farmer undoubtedly brought scions from trees supplied by German (and/or Danish) immigrants who settled in the Eastern United States. Historians tell us that a man named William J. (Joe) Hunt, who would play a prominent role in the ascendancy of the Gravenstein, planted several trees in 1869 in the small orchard northwest of Sebastopol where he and his sons were attempting to build a better dehydrator.