Fans of the short season, hard-to-find Gravenstein apple are experiencing a little harvest whiplash this year. A very dry winter and an unexpected streak of very hot weather at the end of May and the beginning of June pushed up the ripening of several types of regional fruit trees, the Gravensteins included.
Already one of the earliest apples to arrive at the markets, the Gravenstein season in Southern California was yanked from an early July harvest to a surprising and uneven, early June. Their short, weak stems already make them vulnerable to winds, prompting farmers to keep a sharp eye on ripening patterns and to pick ahead of potential fruit drops.
Nancy Yingst, owner of the 18-acre Yingst Ranch up in Littlerock, ended up picking all her Gravensteins early to save the crop for market. It's a risky move with this super aromatic apple. A big component of its noteworthy sweet and musky fragrance is ethylene, or ripening gas, which makes the fruit's shelf life as short as its stem.
"Things are ripening out of sequence," said Yingst, noting that they also have about 20 varieties of peaches in addition to Bartlett pears and a handful of apple varieties. "The next apples coming are the Gingergolds, Galas, Red Delicious, Granny Smiths -- and we close the apple season with Fujis."
If you were going to pick one of the most finicky and sensitive fruits to grow, the Gravenstein would easily make the top five. It's a commercial crap shoot thanks to the short season and fruit fall, with a laughable shelf life making long term storage tricky, if not outright impossible. Groves of Gravensteins increasingly succumb to the plow to be replaced by heartier, less moody varieties, which put it under Slow Food's protection as an endangered food. But increasing rarity wasn't the only reason it was added to Slow Food's Ark of Taste. Challenging or not, it's a damn fine apple.
The Gravestein has a heady, sugary aroma. Since scent is the gateway to actual flavor, consider yourself prepared. Not merely sweet, the Gravenstein has a complicated and balanced tart side, like limes dipped in honey and tossed with elderflowers and freesia. It's best enjoyed fresh, although it has a firm flesh that stands up to cooking. Heat kills the complexity, but the tartness remains, making it a fantastic pie or sauce apple for those unwilling to wait for the sharper Granny Smith later in the season.
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Yingst Ranch is at the Hollywood farmers market on Sundays and will have Gravensteins for a few more weeks. You can find them on the west side of Ivar, well south of Selma near Sunset. Yingst Ranch is also open for U-Pick harvests Tuesday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Their orchards are just north of the 138 outside of Palmdale. Call (661) 944-2425 for directions and available harvests.
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