Family traditions: Making Gravenstein apple pie

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When I was growing up our family holidays were spent at the Russian River in Northern California. Back then it wasn’t the trendy bohemian destination it is today. We went there because a family friend owned a sprawling log house on the riverbank, and our large family could stay economically. We’d play in the river, catch tadpoles and float on plastic blow-up rafts all day long.

In the evenings, we’d have a family style dinner: Spaghetti Bolognese, garlic bread freshly baked from the local store, and a big salad made with Romaine lettuce sprinkled with olive oil and red wine vinegar. We’d also have apple pie.


Apple pie


It wasn’t just any apple pie. The pies were made from Gravenstein apples, the local favourite. Gravensteins are the first apple in the area to mature, sometimes as early as late July, and go from sweet-to-tart-to-sweet again in your mouth. To me they taste like late summer.


Gravenstein apples at walkers farm in sonoma county


My father found Walker’s Apples in Graton back in the 70s. Today it’s one of the few apple orchards left in Sonoma County. They grow 27 varieties of apples, and yes they still have Gravensteins!


Walkers apples sonoma county


Even after we all grew up and didn’t made the annual trek to the Russian River for our summer holiday, my parents would still go to Walker’s Apples in early August for their Gravensteins. They would get 3 or 4 40 lbs. boxes and make apple pies and apple sauce in bulk.


Apple pie - the apple peeler!


120 lbs of apples is too much to try to peel with a small peeler (even with many hands). So we invested in an apple peeler/corer (they are about $20).


Gravenstein apple pie - a family project


My dad wasn’t feeling up to going this year, so instead we made the journey (fitting in a day at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery and swimming pool!)


Apple pie - making with graandma


Here’s my mother directing the making of the apple pies.


Applie pie crusts - waiting for filling


My mother’s Gravenstein apple pie recipe (the secret is the crust): 

Pie Crust:

1). 4 cups flour

2). 1 cup lard (yes, really, it’s essential)

3). 1 cup butter

4). 1 Tbs. sugar

5). 1 Tbs vinegar

6). 1 egg

7). 1/2 cup water

Mix 1st four ingredients with fork. Add 5, 6 and 7 after beating well. Mix/chill 1/2 hour. Roll and put in pie pans. Makes about 4 pie crusts.


8 – 9 Gravenstein apples (peeled, cored and sliced)

1 Tbs sugar

1/4 cup tapioca

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp ginger

Mix all ingredients and put in pie shell. Top with crust. Bake at 400F for 40-50 minutes, or when curst is golden and apples are bubbling.

If you go:

Walker’s Apples 10955 Upp Rd  Graton, CA 95444 +1 (707) 823-4310 This apple farm has 27 varities of apples, and you can “try before you buy”. In August, it is worth the trip to get a box of Gravenstein apples, quite possible the best in the world and a local secret.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery 300 Via Archimedes Geyserville, CA 95441 +1 (707) 857-1400 $125 to rent a cabine for the day, includes 4 wine tastings, 4 lounge chairs and towels. Kids smoothie tastings on the weekends.

Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch 738 Main St St Helena +1 (707) 963-9181 Great food and responsible farming.

Quality Inn Petaluma 5100 Montero Way Petaluma, CA 94954 (707) 664-1155 There are closer places to stay, but we wanted to explore a few Sonoma wineries.

Nicholson Ranch Winery 4200 Napa Rd Sonoma, CA 95476 +1(707) 938-8822 Winemaker owned and run! Sip one of their signature Pinots or Chardonnays while sitting in a comfortable deck chair looking over a lake and golden hills. Worth the trip.

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  1. 21/01/2014 / 06:26

    In Oxfordshire, close to where we used to live, is a farm and farm shop that sell family-sized, Beef Pies made with a similar, though savoury, lard pie crust. So monumental these pies that we Archers dubbed then ‘Cow Pies’ Lush! [not fattening at all!!!] Your apple pies sound fantastic. I’m praying we get tons of apples this year. We have an old orchard which we hard-pruned two years ago and last year we were rewarded with no apples whatsoever. We wait to see what this year will bring.

  2. Pinkoddy
    20/09/2013 / 22:51

    That looks/sounds like a lot of apples. We had 3 apple trees in our garden and I remember this time of year being very productive for making things with them – as well as the excitement of climbing the tree to pick them.

    • Susanna
      21/09/2013 / 07:35

      We have one tree in our garden, I wish I had three! X

  3. My Nan has always made pastry with lard and I have to admit nothing ever tastes as good. She’s 96 now and going strong so it can’t have done her much harm! That’s a wonderful story and it’s very pleasing that your family is holding with tradition and you are able to give it to your girls 🙂

    • Susanna
      21/09/2013 / 07:34

      96? Wow! Thanks for your comment. X

  4. 20/09/2013 / 21:06

    120 lbs of apples!! How much pie did you guys eat??
    LOVE your photos, it feels as if I’m there with you, so where’s my slice of pie?

    • Susanna
      21/09/2013 / 07:34

      I’ll send it with a cup of coffee x

  5. Jenny @justphotosbyme
    20/09/2013 / 19:54

    My mouth is watering! When I was younger our house would be full of plums from the trees in my grandparents garden from “Early Rivers” to “Victoria” there would be jam and pudding on the go for days (and my sister would make herself sick eating them!)

    As for pastry made with lard and vinegar, that’s a first for me, but I can see (I think) why it works so well.

    • Susanna
      21/09/2013 / 07:33

      The crust is yummy, light and flaky, not doughy.x

  6. 20/09/2013 / 17:00

    I totally want apple pie right now!!!! Lovely pictures. Jx

    • Susanna
      20/09/2013 / 17:02

      It’s in the post…

  7. 20/09/2013 / 16:54

    The Russian River sounds heavenly, I’m off to google it 🙂 Love your apple pie photos, so the secret is in the crust is it? Might have to give this one a try!

    • Susanna
      20/09/2013 / 16:59

      Yes, the horribly unhealthy crust with LARD. But sometimes that is OK. Thanks for your comment. x

  8. 20/09/2013 / 16:36

    Sounds like you had an amazing childhood and my mouth is now watering at the thought of those Gravenstein apples! Is there anything vaguely similar that you’ve found in the UK?

    • Susanna
      20/09/2013 / 16:58

      I’ve been asking around. Apparently they have Gravensteins in Denmark. They are a tart eating/cooking apple, with a high water content. Still looking for UK equivalent. x

  9. 20/09/2013 / 16:31

    Those holidays sound completely idyllic! I bet you have smashing memories from there.

    And don’t even get me started on apple pie. LOVE!

    • Susanna
      20/09/2013 / 16:57

      me too, and crumble 😀