If you’ve been following this blog for a while you may remember some conversations about Astrachan apples last January and February. I knew they were an early summer apple with a short season, and I was determined to find some this year. I did! These are from Weston’s Antique Apple Orchards in New Berlin, WI.
According to Weston’s catalog: “This aromatic red summer apple is good for cooking and eating out-of-hand. …The flavor is good, if rather tart, and the flesh fine, juicy, crisp becoming soft with over maturity.”
Once, these were a favorite apple. The advent of refrigerated train boxcars led to the demise (or near-demise) of hundreds of varieties of apples. A few varieties that looked good after being transported long distances became prevalent. But we’ve lost a great deal in the bargain. Apples with a few bruises and brown spots might have phenomenal taste.
So…why was I so eager to try Astrachans? (Red or white, I didn’t care!)
It started when I read The Emigrants. In Vilhelm Moberg’s suite of novels about a Swedish immigrant family in Minnesota, Kristina—who never stops longing for her old homeland—dreams about the Astrachan apple tree back home. Her husband, Karl Oskar, grows an Astrachan on their new farm in an attempt to ease her homesickness.
Some believe Moberg modeled Karl Oskar on Andrew Peterson, a Swedish immigrant and horticulturist who settled in Minnesota. Peterson began planting apple grafts in 1856, and tried over a hundred varieties. In 1884, he wrote of planting “Russian apple trees.” (Astrachans evidently originated in Russia, moved on to Sweden, and were brought to the US by immigrants.) In 1886, Peterson wrote that “The Russian White Astrakhan is hardier than the Duchess and is a good bearer.”
There’s something quite special in savoring antique apples (or any other kind of heirloom fruit or vegetable.) They are living links to the past. It’s fine to hold a dusty antique and wonder who once made or owned or used it. But when we eat heirloom produce, we are sharing an actual experience.
Scott and I enjoyed a couple of our Astrachans straight up. They were tart and crisp and delicious. After a day in my kitchen, though, they turned soft enough that I decided to bake the rest. The only logical choice was the pie recipe that came from Otto Hilgendorf, an elderly German-American gentleman who donated two outbuildings to the Koepsell Farm at Old World Wisconsin several decades ago. Otto’s gone now, but I think of him every time I make this pie. I posted his photo and recipe last winter (January 14th). The recipe is worth repeating:
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 slice.)
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 of that.
Bake about 1 hour at 350 degrees. Serve cold.