Posts Tagged ‘Vilhelm Moberg’


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

January 14, 2010

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