Posts Tagged ‘Astrachan apples’


August 10, 2010

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.

Red Astrachans from Weston's Antique Apples.

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.

The taste makes up for any superficial blemishes.

So…why was I so eager to try Astrachans? (Red or white, I didn’t care!)

This was one of the first books I read when I started working at Old World Wisconsin.

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.

Antique apples and an antique recipe = a fabulous pie!

Immigrant Apples – Revisited

February 11, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about heirloom apples, and mentioned that Vilhelm Moberg had used Astrachan apples in his classic novels to symbolize a Swedish-American woman’s longing for home.  I was not familiar with that variety.  A friend who grew up in Minnesota (setting for Moberg’s novels) said she’d heard of them, but never tasted one.

Then another blog reader told me that when she was growing up in New England, her family always used Astrachans for applesauce.  Since moving to the Midwest she’s been unable to find them.  “I have yet to find an apple that makes applesauce as sweet and pink as the applesauce from Astrachan apples,” she wrote.

Now I really want to track them down.

As I thought more about this, I remembered an article I’d come across while doing research for The Runaway Friend:  A Kirsten Mystery, which is set in 1854 Minnesota.  In 1972, Carlton C. Qualey published “Diary of a Swedish Immigrant Horticulturist, 1855-1898” in Minnesota History.   Tonight I dug that out of my files, wondering if I’d find mention of the Astrachans.

Andrew Peterson kept a daily diary for forty-three years.  The volumes, written in Swedish, now reside in the Minnesota Historical Society archives.  In the ’72 article, Qualey notes that Moberg acknowledged the use of Peterson’s diary while writing his novels about Swedish immigrants.  “In fact,” Qualey notes, “the character Karl Oskar in the Moberg novels is said to have been modeled after Peterson.”

Who knew?

Peterson began planting apple grafts in 1856, and tried over a hundred varieties.  In 1884, he wrote of planting “Russian apple trees.”  (Yes! I thought.  Historians believe Astrachans originated in Russia, and came to the US with Swedish immigrants.)

In 1885, Peterson wrote that he had received scions of 200 apples he’d requested from Sweden.  Out of sixty varieties only one, he noted,  survived the harsh Minnesota winter.  In 1886, Peterson wrote that “The Russian White Astrakhan is hardier than the Duchess and is a good bearer.”

Very cool.

One more immigrant apple story.   This afternoon, while working on a completely different project (the Swiss settlement at New Glarus, Wisconsin), I found this gem:  “In January, 1853, thirty-one people…went to Monroe on foot to get their citizenship papers.  Each was given an apple, and each Swiss preserved the seeds to plant later, thus the first apple trees were called ‘citizenship apple trees.'”  (The Swiss Endure:  1845-1995, by  Elda Schiesser and Linda Schiesser.)

I don’t know what variety the new American citizens were given.  But I’d like to think that somewhere in the hills around New Glarus is a gnarled old apple tree or two, descended from those first ‘citizenship apple trees.’

PS:  I put this post up at about 3 AM (once I remembered the article about Andrew Peterson, I couldn’t sleep until I’d excavated it).  By the time I got back to the computer this morning, another blog reader had pointed me to Weston’s Antique Apples, in New Berlin, Wisconsin.  (Thanks!)  On their list of varieties is “Red Astrachan (Russia),” which they list as “Rather tart, juicy summer apple good for eating and cooking.”  The Astrachans are harvested in August.

Weston’s is listed on the National Register of Rural Historic Landscapes.  The owners grow over 100 varieties.  The oldest has been documented back to 1598.  One variety, the Old Church apple, is grown only Weston’s.

Come August, I’m headed that way.  In the meantime, check out their website.  We need to support the people working hard to preserve varieties that could so easily disappear.