With russeted shoulders and lumpy shapes, the first apples of summer may not be the most beautiful fruit. But apple aficionados argue that old-fashioned varieties rank among the most delicious.
That's why an early crop of Gravenstein apples gets farmers and foodies buzzing.
An heirloom variety that once dominated California apple orchards, the Gravenstein is to apples what Brandywine is to tomatoes. It's the old-timer people really crave.
"Why the Gravenstein is so special, it has a long history, particularly in California," said Rebecca North, head buyer for the FruitGuys. "Typically, it's the first apple of the season and starts the harvest."
The FruitGuys, based in San Francisco, supplies fruits and vegetables direct to businesses and homes while working with small farmers to preserve heirloom varieties.
"It's a really short window," said Chris Mittelstaedt, founder and CEO of the FruitGuys. "They don't store well. We get them in from the farms and literally deliver them overnight."
Through Friday, the FruitGuys will accept orders for their special Gravenstein box with a portion of proceeds supporting small Northern California farmers. The boxes also help the Slow Food Gravenstein Apple Presidium, a project of the FruitGuys and Slow Food Russian River to encourage farmers to grow more heirloom varieties.
"This is our seventh year of doing this fundraiser," Mittelstaedt said. "One farm used the money to plant more Gravenstein trees."
Older fruit varieties represent the next big wave of heirloom food. As consumers get interested in these almost-lost apples, the thinking goes, demand will grow, too.
"Totally," North said. "One of our goals around this project is introducing people to varieties that they may have heard of or remember from their youth. In addition, we're getting small farms to still try and grow these apples. In the end, the consumer gets an exceptional piece of fruit."
Gravensteins may be the most familiar of these heirlooms, although many more are waiting to be discovered. More than 7,500 varieties are grown in the United States, but only five -- Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji and Granny Smith -- account for most of the national crop.
"We've had an almost ideal growing season," Sebastopol farmer Stan Devoto said of his Gravensteins, which are peaking now in his Sonoma County orchard. "We had a lot of warm weather and very, very little rain."
That combination has spurred apples to ripen about two weeks early. That early bird trend should continue throughout this season's harvest with other varieties, too.
Short-stemmed and precious, Gravensteins can be difficult to get to market. The apples literally push themselves off the tree.
"Before we even start picking, we lose about 30 percent each season," Devoto said. "Their season lasts only about three weeks. Their storage life also is very short."
"With the FruitGuys' help, I recently planted a lot more," said Devoto, an apple grower since 1975. "We've got more than 100 varieties now. It will take four to six years before we harvest some of those, but when we do, we'll have a good representation of apples."
He added:. "These heirlooms are a big commitment. ... But I'm kind of excited about the future."
Besides his Gravensteins, Devoto also is partial to Ashmead's Kernel (an 18th century English dessert variety), Arkansas Black (first reported in 1870) and Mutsu (Japan's "million-dollar apple," also known as Crispin).
"Ashmead's Kernel is cosmetically challenged," Devoto said of the brown apple that looks like a Bosc pear. "They have to be sorted by hand. But flavor wise, they're incredible. They come right after the Gravensteins."
Most modern commercial apple varieties can spend weeks, even months, in cold storage before shipping. But not the Gravenstein. Named a "heritage food" by Slow Food USA, the Gravenstein dates back to 1669 and its native Denmark. According to Gravenstein lore, the first California tree was planted in 1811 at Fort Ross on the North Coast. Since the 1960s, vineyards and development have squeezed most of the apple orchards out of business.
Much of the Gravenstein crop traditionally goes to applesauce or cider. Jolie Devoto Wade, Stan Devoto's daughter, started a hard-cider business -- Apple Sauced Cider -- to use up the family's less-than-perfect apples. Her 100 percent Gravenstein hard cider will be ready in October.
The best way to enjoy Gravensteins is fresh. What they may lack in looks, they make up in sweet-tart flavor.
Said North, "They might not be perfectly flawless, but they taste amazing. Once you take a bite, you forget what that piece of fruit looked like on the outside."
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.
Call The Bees Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington