If the Red Delicious apple was hard to grow and had at most a three week harvest window, we safely predict the farmers market cognoscenti would be making at-dawn market runs to the one or two vendors who offered it -- to buy it by the crate. That rush-and-grab mantle currently belongs to the Gravenstein, thanks to all of the reasons mentioned above, as well as some high end attention from Slow Food USA that marked it as an endangered heirloom.
The prime Gravenstein orchards of old (think 1900-1960) were mostly up in Sonoma County. Real estate prices and the wine industry have had their way with the once-prolific apple growers and have reduced current production to a handful of small farmers willing to put up with the apple's uncertain harvest cycles and short shelf life. So why bother? The Gravenstein is everything you miss about apples, even if you never grew up with them: thin-skinned, super tart and snappy, pleasantly puckery when raw and brightly concentrated when cooked down into pie or apple sauce. For flavor alone it deserves the hype. But we'll give you a few other reasons after the jump.
Two local growers at the Hollywood market , Ha's Apple Farm (Tehachapi) and Yingst Ranch (Little Rock), have fewer than 100 trees (trees, not acres) of Gravensteins between the two of them -- 20 at Ha's and 50 at Yingst. Why so few if demand is so high?
The Gravenstein is high maintenance. The short stems on the fruit are weak. One good wind and half your crop falls to the ground, unsellable. Nailing down the harvest time is a bit tricky, too. Everything goes ripe within a three week window, albeit unevenly, which means you watch the trees, and watch some more, and then pick quickly for market sale. Once picked, you have to sell or process fast. Even refrigerated, the Gravenstein doesn't last that long compared to the months some other, thicker-skinned varieties have. We're looking at you Arkansas Black. This is not an easy money crop. You grow the Gravenstein because you get its appeal and because you love what you do. Such is the case with Yingst and Ha's, and we're happy to have another reason to buy from them.
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The Gravenstein starts off a bright lime green with some "branch burn" around the stem area (again, another short stem issue). As it ripens, the skin takes on splashes of red stripes and the green lightens to a softer yellow. The flesh is crisp, tart and floral with a pungency that is amplified when cooked. Select for uncut, unbruised fruit. All green apples are almost entirely tart, while those that have had a chance to ripen have a more balanced sweetness. Store in the refrigerator unless you plan to eat or process immediately. We suggest pie first. Then apple sauce.
Yingst Ranch is at the Pasadena (Saturday) and Hollywood markets. You can find Ha's Apple Farm at multiple farmers markets, including Pasadena (Saturday), Hollywood, Silver Lake (Saturday), Monrovia and Santa Monica (Wednesday).
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