Nothing says wholesome and delicious like a good, crunchy apple. As the old adage goes, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” In fact, the apple has quite a colorful history and has been part of human culture and mythology for several thousand years. Malus sieversii, the wild apple, is part of the Rose (Rosaceae) family and originated in the mountains of Central Asia. The apple is believed to have been the first cultivated plant, and was brought to Europe by Alexander the Great in about 300B.C.
The apple is perhaps most infamous for it’s appearance in the Biblical Garden of Eden. The term “Adam’s Apple” arose the notion that as he tasted it, the forbidden fruit became stuck in Adam’s throat. However, since their were no apples in Biblical Times on the Fertile Crescent, it’s more likely that the pomegranate was the culprit, being replaced in the story much later by the apple. In fact, until the 17th century in Europe, the word “apple” was used as a generic term for all foreign fruit. This makes the apple’s history no less dubious though – in Greek mythology, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite were fighting over an apple that Paris of Troy awarded to Aphrodite, thus inciting the Trojan War. From then on, the apple was considered sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and to throw an apple at someone meant a declaration of your love. In Norse myth, the goddess Iounn provided apples to the other gods that gave them the gift of eternal youth. When Norse King Rerir prayed to the goddess Frigg for a child, her messenger, a crow, dropped an apple in his wife’s lap. Upon devouring it she was rewarded with a six-year pregnancy that ended in a Cesarean section and the birth of their son.
The Malus Spp. first traveled to North America by boat with colonists in the 1600s. The first apple orchard on the continent was said to have started in Boston in 1625. The apple made its way out west with the settlers, thanks largely to Johnny Appleseed, who cultivated apple nurseries along the frontier. Johnny Appleseed was a devout missionary for the Church of the New Jerusalem, and though his business made him a rich man, he always traded his nicer clothes for simple rags and went barefoot, even in winter. He preferred to sell his apple trees on credit, but often never came round to collect. He was reportedly kind and gentle to animals, and wandered the frontier preaching out in his sermons against the excessive lifestyle of the elite, being a proponent of simple modesty. All of his apple trees were planted from seed, rather than by the preferred asexual method of reproduction, grafting. Because apples are an example of “extreme heterozygotes,” meaning that their characteristics differ from their parents’, often radically, if a tree is planted from the seed of a sweet apple, it will most likely end up sour and bitter. It’s possible that Appleseed felt this was the most ‘natural’ way to grow apples, but most of his trees produced fruit that was unsuitable for eating but were strong and astringent enough for hard cider.
By the 1830’s, the hard cider industry was booming, and cider was the preferred drink at mealtime, as the water was considered unsafe. People consumed cider by the barrel-full, making it the most popular drink of the time. It was in the 1840’s that the “temperance movement” began, which eventually led to Prohibition and the virtual death of the cider industry. The apple, which had once again gained a questionable reputation, became the subject of ad campaigns promoting wholesome health and nutrition. Apples are, after all, high in Vitamin C, dietary fiber, phenols (which reduce cholesterol) and quercetin (which protects the brain against neuro-degenerative disorders). As the market shifted, growers followed suit.
In the meantime, apple farming was gaining a foothold on the west coast in the fertile soil of the greater bay area. In 1902, the town of Sebastopol, www.sebastopolonline.com/, was incorporated and began to abound with rural prosperity due to the apple industry. The Gravenstein apple, which was probably brought to America by Russian fur traders, became the mainstay of the Sonoma economy in the first half of the 20th century, and was the source of applesauce and dried apples for the troops in WWII.
Sebastopol became known as the Gravenstein capital of the world, and every year it holds a Gravenstein Apple Fair,www.gravensteinapplefair.com ,just having celebrated its centennial year. This year the fair featured local artisans, historical displays and of course, all the apples, fresh apple juice and apple pies you could ever want. Only in recent years has the apple trade in West Sonoma begun to dwindle with most of the apple orchards having been replaced by wine grapes.
Benicia Magazine paid a visit to one of the few remaining producers in Sebastopol – Walker Apples. We were greeted by Goldie, a member of the Walker family, who gave us tastes of the five mid-season apples they had available – the Gala, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Empire, and the Gravenstein. Walker Apples has over 25 varieties in the season, which goes from July through November. The famed Gravenstein is an early season apple, peaking sometime in August. Still to come are the deep, delicious Arkansas Black and the sweet, crunchy Pink Lady, among others.
We were able to meet Mr. Lee Walker, who is now 79 years old and whose grandfather started the farm in 1910. He pointed out a sprawling tree just behind the packing shed that is about to have its 100th birthday. Most of the trees on the 65+ acres of farmland are much younger, and many of them are Gravensteins, producing a total of 700-800 tons of apples per year. Lee told us that while their used to be over 3,000 acres of Gravenstein trees in Sebastopol, only about 800 acres remain.
It’s been tough times for the apple industry, with most of the orchards having been converted to grapes. Walker has no idea what the future will hold for his farm, but one bright spot is that the Russian River chapter of Slow Food USA has jumped on the Gravenstein cause, providing Walker’s Gravensteins to local schools. Check out the Slow Food USA website for more information on their Gravenstein Apple Presidia at www.slowfoodrr.org. Although the Gravenstein trade has been on the decline, he says, “what’s left is good.” And what is Walker’s all-time favorite apple? Why, the Gravenstein, of course!
At Walker Apples, most varieties can be used for either baking or eating. Gravensteins make the best pie, but a tart apple such as the Golden Delicious works well too. Just be sure to add a little lemon or apple juice to the mix to keep it moist. According to Walker, “My wife used to make an apple pie every day during apple season.” Walker Apples is located just outside of Sebastopol in beautiful apple country, and is open every day from nine to five during the season. If you’d like to know what varieties are available, just call ahead and ask. Their number is 707.823.4310.