When I was a child, the advent of crisp autumn weather meant our free time was spent at my grandparents’ Annapolis Valley farm. The smell of hay and damp, dew-covered grass mingled with the salty breeze blowing across the Minas Basin and the heady ambrosia of ripening apples. The sun low in the sky, touched the brow of the North Mountain, frosting the fields and trees with a warm, golden glow.
While the adults worked, my brother and I would play — exploring the barn, hide and seek in the orchard, clambering amidst the apple bins. The autumns of my childhood are framed by the sides of an old red wooden barn and shadowed around the edges by dust motes dancing in sunshine.
The Gravenstein is an old apple variety. It was discovered in Gråsten, Denmark, in 1669 — a lovely accident of nature that someone chose to nurture, a chance seedling that proved to have qualities worth cultivating. Introduced to Nova Scotia in the early 1800’s by Charles Prescott, who planted them at his estate in Starr’s Point, Kings County, it became popular, and was planted in orchards from one end of the Valley to the other. The apple that Prescott introduced was green with red streaks. The ones currently found in most roadside stands in the valley are of the crimson persuasion, the earliest strain of which was discovered in 1876, in Waterville.
The Annapolis Valley was and still is Apple Country, and hosts an Apple Blossom Festival every spring to celebrate their proud apple growing heritage. I participated in the parade for many years, as did a lot of my friends.
The autumns of my childhood taste like Gravensteins.
I live in Ottawa now, far from the place where I grew up. The orchards were cut down years ago and turned into pasture. The farm passed to my brother, who had only a very short time to make it his own before he died in a motorcycle crash. The farm, like me, is haunted with memories of what was before – the way things were. Life can seem very complicated when juxtaposed against our memories of what was, to us, a simpler time.
The farm, like me, is haunted with memories of what was before…
One bite brings a flood of memories: hiding in the corner of an apple bin with my brother and playing house, eating apples from the trees until I thought my belly would explode, my grandmother’s apple pies, picking up “drops” (windfall apples) to set aside for making cider, sitting in a crook of an apple tree with the warm fall sun on my face, watching my father and grandfather operate the cider press in the little barn.
My grandmother insisted that at one time their orchard had a ‘Yellow Gravenstein’ tree, but I don’t remember this. I do remember a Cox’s Orange Pippin tree — another wonderful old-variety apple often overlooked for cosmetic reasons.
Until recently, it was impossible to find Gravs in Ottawa. They are not a “keeper” apple and they do not transport well. They spoil quickly. They are not as pretty as more commercially available apples, and they do not conform to consumer expectations of what an apple should be. The flesh has a yellow tint and a tendency to be grainy, and the peel is red with splotches of green, yellow and pink. They are a bit of an ugly duckling, but when it comes to flavour they are all swan.
It is no surprise to me that Gravensteins have been added to the Canadian Ark of Taste. I don’t think there is any apple on the market as fragrant or juicy. Its texture makes it great for apple sauce, pies, and any cooking for which a softer apple is required.
Over the years in Ottawa, friends have mailed them to me, left them anonymously on my step — ferried to town by their own East Coast families, and my parents showed up one year with a giant bag of them packed in the trunk of their car. I savoured each and every bite, knowing that when they were gone it might be years before I got another taste. Farm Boy started carrying them here a couple years ago — importing them from Wink Apples, in Nova Scotia, grown about a half hour from where I grew up. A true taste of Nova Scotia, and every apple is a trip down memory lane.
If I am not eating them fresh, my second favourite way to eat Gravensteins is in pie. I would be remiss not to include a recipe for how to use my favourite apple!
I normally try to avoid making pie. I am a pastry murderer. Recently, though, I started using my mother’s pie crust recipe — I should have been using it years ago. It really is no fail. If you are like me, and your pastry could be used as crack-fill in your century-plus home, you might want to give this a whirl:
Mom’s Pie Crust (makes 4 crusts)
5 Cups all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
454g lard (chilled and cut into cubes)
2 Tbsp vinegar
Measure flour, sugar, salt and baking powder into a large bowl. I find a Pyrex 404 is just large enough for this recipe. Cut in lard by hand with a pastry blender until pieces are the size of tiny peas.
Break egg into a measuring cup. Beat with a fork. Add the vinegar and just enough water to make Cup of liquid. Pour a little at a time over the flour mixture, tossing and stirring with a fork until all the liquid is absorbed. Shape into a ball, and divide this into four equal portions. Wrap and refrigerate.
The wrapped dough can be refrigerated for up to two weeks. It can also be frozen.
Roll out to desired thickness on a well-floured board. Dough will be fairly soft. Bake as directed by your recipe.
Apple Pie Filling (fills one double crust pie):
3 or 4 large Gravensteins, peeled and chopped (approx 4 cups)
1/2 Cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp corn starch
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 450F.
Combine sugar, corn starch, cinnamon, and salt in a bowl. Pour over apples and mix well. Let stand for 5 – 10 minutes and pour into unbaked pie shell. Cover with top crust. Crimp edges, and cut a few holes for steam. Brush with egg wash, if desired.
Bake for 10 minutes, then lower heat to 350F and make for 35 minutes.
Let stand at least 10 minutes before serving.
As an interesting side story, Royal Albert’s ‘Blossom Time’ china is connected with the Annapolis Valley and its orchards.
You can read more about it in this fascinating column by Ed Coleman: