Immigrant Apples

I am mourning the approaching end of fresh fruit for the year.  Soon Scott and I will get our final box from Future Fruit Farm. When we joined this Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, I knew we could look forward to local and organically-raised apples, pears, and plums. And that would have been plenty!

To my delight, some of the varieties we receive are also heirlooms, or antiques. Heirloom varieties have been documented and preserved for at least a century.  Many immigrants crossed the Atlantic with precious seeds tucked into their trunks, or even stitched into the hems of their garments for safekeeping.

Antique apples have far more taste and variety than varieties bred to look good over long transports.

I began learning about heirloom fruits (and vegetables and flowers) when I worked at Old World Wisconsin.  I also started reading immigrant fiction.  When Swedish novelist Vilhelm Moberg wrote the four novel suite The Emigrants, he used apples symbolically.  The stories follow Karl Oskar Nilsson and his wife Kristina as they leave  Småland for a new home in Minnesota.

Kristina, who never stops longing for Sweden, lies awake at night and remembers:  “Against the evening sky the young Astrachan apple tree stood out clearly—she had planted it herself….  Each autumn she had dug around the little tree; it had carried its first apples the last fall they were at home—big juicy apples with transparent skin; how many times she had gone out just to look at the apples; and how delicious they had been.”  (Unto a Good Land, Moberg)

Kristina, forever looking over her shoulder, is immortalized in Lindstrom, MN.

Karl Oskar grows an Astrachan tree, but it doesn’t bear fruit until Kristina is on her deathbed.  He brings her the first ripe apple, which she is barely strong enough to taste.  “It’s an Astrachan…!” she breathes.  “…Our apples are ripe.  I’m home.”  Those are her final words, and the apple falls to the floor.  (The Last Letter Home, Moberg)

Astrachan (Astrakhan) apples, which evidently originated in Russia and came to the United States from Sweden in the 1830s, were once very popular.  Unfortunately, the variety has fallen out of favor over the past few decades.  I haven’t yet had the opportunity to taste one, but I do enjoy the antique Winesap and Cox Orange Pippin apples I get from Future Fruit Farm.

When I make apple pies, I always use a recipe shared by German-American Otto Hilgendorf.  Two of his family farm’s outbuildings were moved to Old World Wisconsin in the 1970s, and when I began working in the German area in 1982, he sometimes visited. I’m very grateful that I had the chance to meet him.  I wish now I’d thought to ask him what kind of apple he favored, but I love thinking about his family—and all the other immigrants who cherished their apple trees—when I make pie.

Me and Otto Hilgendorf at Old World Wisconsin, 1982.

Otto Hilgendorf’s Sour Cream Apple Pie
Line a pan with your favorite pie pastry, and fill with apples.  (I don’t peel the apples, just core and cut and chunks.)

Mix 1 c. sugar with 1 T. flour, 1 T. cinnamon, and a pinch of salt. Sprinkle half of that mixture over the apples.

Spread 1 c. of sour cream over the apples, and sprinkle the rest of the sugar mixture on top.

Bake about one hour at 350 degrees, and serve cold.

Otto Hilgendorf’s Sour Cream Apple Pie

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18 Responses to “Immigrant Apples”

  1. Meg Says:

    That pie sounds absolutely delicious. I’ve always wanted to try CSA, too, but since it’s just me I worried that a lot of it would go to waste before I could eat it. I wonder if any farms local to me do a single person’s share [g]. I might have to look into that.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    We get a half-share from Future Fruit, which means we get deliveries only every other week. That’s quite manageable. We also do a half-share from a vegetable CSA. I know some people who split shares with someone else, too, meaning they get a box every week and then divvy the contents among several people. I hope you can find the right solution in your area!

  3. Kerry Says:

    At what temperature do you bake the pie?

  4. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Oops! Good question. I’ll update the post, but 350 degrees will do nicely.

  5. Kerry Says:

    We tried this earlier this week (at 350 degrees, so I guessed right!). LOVED it. Even my picky children gobbled it up.

    So thanks!

  6. Reynardine Says:

    I live at the very southern edge of what apples will tolerate, and have tried and lost a Red June and a seedling of Criterion. Currently have a recently-ordered Chenango Strawberry and a very young spit apple, as well as two flowering crabs. Adore your site!

  7. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    I hope your new apples survive! And thanks so much for stopping by the site, and your kind comment.

  8. Daniel Lindsäth Says:


    As a Swede, I have some problems with the american measuring system. I understand that “c.” is a cup, but what is “T.”? Teaspoon? Tablespoon? Something else entirely?

    I’d love to try this recipe, but I don’t dare until I know I have the proportions right =)

    If you’re interested in old apple varieties, I can warmly recommend a Danish type called “Maglemer”. My parents grow it in their garden, and they will forever remind me of warm and sunny summer days as a kid. They’re both sweet and a little tart, with a wonderful aroma and work great in pies as well as eating straight from the tree.


    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hello Daniel! Thanks for reminding me that I should write all instructions out completely. In the US, “T.” stands for Tablespoon and “t.” stands for teaspoon. (And yes, “c.” is for cup.) With that cleared up, I do think you’ll enjoy this recipe.

      And, thank you so much for the suggestion. I’m not familiar with Maglemer apples, but now I have a new name on my wish list! How lovely that they evoke such pleasant memories for you.

      Warm regards,

  9. Richard Says:

    can someone tell me what kind of apple the yellow one with the spots is in the upper right corner?Thank you.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Richard – It’s been so long now I don’t recall, but if I get the chance I’ll ask the people who grew them. I should see them later this fall.

      • Richard Says:

        Hello Kathleen,thank you,I’d apprieciate it.I have a tree like that in my yard and can’t find them anywhere on the internet.I’ll be waiting for the answer.Thank you again.

  10. Nancy Bjorn Says:

    I’m triing to find heirloom apple trees from Sweden to plant in the US

  11. Barbara Woodliff Says:

    I had the great pleasure to eat the apples of a 100 year old Astracan apple tree. The tree was majestic.There has never been a better tasting apple. Texture, aroma, taste are unequaled. That was 35 years ago in Napa Valley California. The tree was removed for apartments but I urge you to find an Astracan apple. Thank you for reminding me.

  12. Dave Coulter Says:

    Hello Kathleen, Check out Hackleboro Orchard on facebook. They are located in Canterbury,NH. They have a couple Astrachan trees that are bearing fruit right now. I have no idea what type of cost would be involved to have some shipped to you. Harry
    (the orchard manager) says people tend not to like this apple since Macs etc. have such a more sweet taste. I have eaten them and while they are tart, they aren’t bad at all. I can see where they would be great in pies or sauce. Dave Coulter (I work at the orchard).

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