The Gravenstein apple is a symbol of the Sonoma County community. Brought here by Russian trappers in the early 19th century, it has provided food and drink for the locals for many years. Today its orchards are threatened by the success of the region’s vineyards.
Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple nominated to the Ark of Taste by Chef Kyle Connaughton of SingleThread in California.
The last stopover on our voyage aboard the Ark of Taste is here among the vineyards in Sonoma County, California, where we meet Kyle and Katina Connaughton. When they speak of their establishment, SingleThread, they especially mean the farm. That is where Katina produces 70% of the ingredients that Kyle prepares in the kitchen, including vegetables, herbs, flowers, fruits, honey, olives (for oil) and eggs. Crowned with three Michelin stars, the restaurant of the same name offers a one-of-a-kind culinary experience, particularly through the eleven-course meal inspired by the best that the Earth has to offer at any given time. Its uniqueness is also expressed in the sense of hospitality founded on the Japanese philosophy omotenashi, which means giving every customer the impression that he or she is a personal guest of the house. Kyle spent part of his childhood in the land of the rising sun, where Japanese culture and cookery left a lasting impression on him.
Once the introductions are made – stomachs rumbling – we bring up the subject of our visit: Food for Change. “This is the fourth year that Relais & Châteaux will be participating in the Slow Food campaign to combat climate change,” Kyle points out, “and this year the focus is on endangered products.” The idea is to turn a spotlight on these ingredients, and to explain how to cook them and what to do to protect them. “Biodiversity is like an insurance policy against climate change,” Katina pipes up, “a treasure that supports us as we face these new situations. Our culinary heritage is also very important because it reminds us of where we come from. That is why we chose the Gravenstein apple of Sebastopol, which is part of the identity of Sonoma County.”
Having arrived in the region in the early 19th century – probably brought here by Russian trappers –, it became such an integral part of the region that several local celebrations are held in honor of it. Nevertheless, in the last decades, its cultivated area has been reduced to one-tenth of its former expanse, down from 7400 to just 740 acres today. The sparkling success of the region’s wines has turned the vineyards into a fearsome competitor for the orchards. Moreover, the Gravenstein apple ripens in August, and it only keeps until the autumn. Its thin peel makes transportation delicate.
However, the apple also offers some major advantages. Foremost among them are its sweet, tangy taste and crunch. It is also multi-purpose, as Kyle explains. “In addition to its usual use in cookery, it is ideal for the production of cider and apple juice.” Vineyards have not always been a monoculture in Sonoma County; indeed, there was a time when cider was more prevalent here than wine.
And then it became a Slow Food Presidia, like more than 600 products from the Ark of Taste. Presidia status means more than identifying an endangered product. It brings structure to a collective approach – involving not only farmers but also chefs, processors, retailers, consumers, and more – to deal with the difficulties that the product is encountering. The status can have an impact on its communication, its farming method, and the protection of its genetic heritage as an animal breed or plant ecotype, among more.
The Gravenstein’s Presidia status has brought it more visibility, provided for a mutualized apple press for the production of juice, and convinced chefs to use it in their cookery (some hundred chefs use it today). Thanks to the local affection for this emblematic product, the project has managed to prevent the vineyards from completely overtaking the orchards... But it isn’t over yet. Farmers and consumers are showing an increased interest in cider, which could be an additional driver in the future.
And if you are fortunate enough to go to the SingleThread between August and October, you will be welcomed with a glass of Gravenstein apple juice, as you savor the view and get into the gourmet mood.