“Gravensteins are amazing apples,” says Laura Cheever, who has a bumper crop of them headed to Oakland from her organic orchard in Sonoma County. “They’re sweet, tart, crispy, and juicy," she adds. "A bite fills your whole palate with flavor. They make excellent pies, juice, sauce, dried apples, and hard cider.”
Laura considers herself an accidental farmer. "The land that found us happened to have a Gravenstein orchard," she says. "The apples were under contract when we purchased the place, but I fell in love with the orchard and gradually took over operations.”
The orchard is one of the old ones that remains from the 1920s through 40s, when Sebastopol was a major apple growing area, Laura explains. "Gravensteins do best in a climate like ours with cool summers that give them the ‘hang time’ they need to develop complex flavors and their distinctive floral aroma.”
Gravensteins ripen earlier than other apples. "Before controlled atmosphere storage and international cold shipping were developed, this was a big deal," Laura says. "Gravensteins were distributed nationally and were probably the only apple available in July and August. Many fortunes were made growing Gravensteins here.” She adds that in the last 50 years, most of the orchards have been replaced by vineyards. “But a few remain, including my own. The Slow Food organization has placed the Sebastopol Gravenstein on the Ark of Taste and formed a presidium to help save this local heirloom.”
Tending a Little Corner of the Earth
Laura Cheever’s orchard is certified organic, which means she can’t use any pesticides or herbicides and keep her certification. To promote tree health, she uses herbal teas and seaweed sprays, and she’s adopted a regenerative approach with minimal tillage.
“I’m converting to permanent mulch in tree rows. The mulch is wood chips from apple prunings and the surrounding woods. For compost, I use spent mushroom spawn from a nearby organic mushroom producer, closing the loop locally. These regenerative methods add carbon to the soil and keep it there, which has been shown to mitigate global warming effects. I dry farm, using no irrigation water at all except to establish saplings.
“I have also added various herbs interspersed among the apple trees," she says. “They provide habitat for beneficial insects and lizards. The scents are reported to discourage pest insects. And I harvest the herbs to make herbal tonics with my homemade cider vinegar.”
Laura has found that farming is hard work, and caring for Gravensteins presents a special challenge, since they have a short season, don’t store very well, and can be fussy to grow. “They tend to fall off the tree the moment they ripen,” she says. “Climate change makes crops and timing increasingly unpredictable.
“But it’s truly a labor of love. I just love tending my little corner of the earth, being among the trees, maintaining habitat for local wildlife, and finding ‘our’ bobcat resting in the shade of an apple tree.”
All Them Apples
Laura says she eats five or six “Gravs” a day during the short season. “When I serve folks, I like homey dishes that come together simply and feature a lot of fruit flavor like crumbles, crisps, and clafoutis.” She makes German style apple pancakes to serve as a main course for Sunday supper. She makes an apple curry sauce, an apple mole, and a simple sauté of apples and onions to serve as a side dish.
She also makes a slaw with thin-sliced apples, sesame oil, and a “boiled cider” vinaigrette, which starts by taking freshly pressed apple juice and boiling it down to syrup consistency. “It’s sweet, tart, caramel-y, with a hint of umami,” she says.
Since Gravensteins have a short season and don’t store for a very long time, Laura does a lot of preserving, making Gravenstein apple butter, Gravenstein applesauce, dried Gravs, and frozen apples for Thanksgiving pie. “It took a while to perfect the freezing method,” she says, “but now they come out great.”
“One of my favorite things to do is host an apple feast. I put together a box of apples and some ingredients that go well with apples and I invite friends and family over and everyone creates something. Some bring a recipe and specific needed ingredients, and others go ‘iron chef’ so I always get to try something new and interesting. Some standouts have been Grav pesto and an apple-sweet potato bake."
Bumper Crop in a Dry Year
Laura Cheever doesn’t know why her Gravenstein crop is so large this year. “Farmers all over the state—and probably the world—are noticing plants behaving in more and more unpredictable ways as the climate changes, especially perennials. Since I dry farm, I’m even more susceptible to climate variations. I anticipated that my trees would struggle this year with the ongoing drought and predicted heat, so I really pampered them all spring. I like to think that helped.”
Laura’s Apples and Apple Products
Besides offering apples for sale, Laura makes and sells various homemade apple products from her cottage food kitchen in Oakland including her Gravenstein cider vinegar and cider vinegar tonics. “I have cold-pressed Gravenstein apple juice, which is unlike any apple juice you’ve ever tasted,” she says. “It’s made in collaboration with my neighbor who operates a commercial press.”
She adds the apple butter, dried apples, and apple leather are in short supply right now. “I’ll be headed back to the kitchen to preserve this year’s crop as soon as the bulk of the harvest is completed.
Laura Cheever has her website set up for online ordering at laurasapples.square.site but says folks can email her directly at email@example.com. She’ll have special pricing on boxes of apples through the peak of harvest season. Sunday evenings or Mondays are generally the optimal times to pick up apples in Oakland. “There’s also an option to pick up at my orchard for folks who fancy a drive to apple country,” she says.