Heirloom Apples at “Little Bee”, a San Francisco Bakery

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Chez Panisse alumni pastry chef Stacie Pierce.
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Heirloom apple farmer Freddy Menge harvests assorted heirloom apples.
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Assorted heirloom apples from Freddy Menge's farm in Santa Cruz, California.
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Apple farmer Freddy Menge holds a ‘Ruby Red’ apple.
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Apple farmer Freddy Menge picks heirloom ‘Spitzenberg’ apples.
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Continually exploring, Freddy has test-grafted 50 new varieties. One of his resources is the California Rare Fruit Growers, a network of small and large-scale collectors sharing local fruit knowledge and scion wood, touring collections, assembling tastings, arranging presentations, demonstrations and workshops.

After 8 1/2 wonderful years at Chez Panisse, pastry chef Stacie Pierce has just opened her own San Francisco bakery, Little Bee. I’m loving her apple galettes, or free formed tarts, and wanted to learn about the apples she uses and why. We met recently to explore apple cultivars with her coveted source, organic apple farmer Freddy Menge, at his home and orchard near Santa Cruz, California.

For her apple pies, Stacie uses red-fleshed ‘Ruby Reds’ and golden-fleshed ‘Spitzenbergs’ — gorgeous and unusual heirloom cultivars. Their common characteristic is their intense acidity and strong aromatics that punch through the sugar required in any baking recipe. The ‘Ruby Reds’ retain their red color even after cooking, making for a stunning surprise … pink apple pie! Biting into red, complex flavors would excite any palette … sharing this surprise with others opens the door to forgotten apple heirloom treasures.

Ten years ago, Stacie was interning at Oliveto in Oakland, California, under the tutelage of pastry chef Julia Cookenboo and chef Paul Canales. Paul recognized Stacie’s love and talent for making pastries. Knowing that his wife, pastry chef Mary Canales, was looking for help in the Chez Panisse kitchen, he suggested Stacie make contact.

With trepidation, she tried out for the job by presenting a dessert to the Chez Panisse chefs, a Shaker lemon tart with pistachio ice cream. Hired yet astonished, she asked, “Are you sure you have the right person? I have very little experience.”

Their response, “You have enough of a sense of the kitchen and no old habits to break. “

Discipline and exclusivity are de rigueur in a place like Chez Panisse, and talented chefs and farmers vie to get in. Being vetted by the Chez Panisse family can elevate the status of contributing chef or farmer in a heartbeat, but professionalism is a strict protocol.

By chance one day, Stacie happened to open the door for Freddy, dressed, well let’s say, like a worker straight from the fields. He showed up unannounced, carrying a paper bag of assorted apples and said he was an apple farmer who sold to chefs throughout Santa Cruz and Carmel Valley. As he bit into one of his apples, the flesh inside a bright red, the color cast its spell on Stacie. She hustled him into the kitchen and the other chefs crowded around. After sampling all his cultivars, the restaurant purchased everything off his truck that day, over 400 pounds worth.

“From a chef’s perspective, when someone like Freddy walks in and introduces us to these new things it sparks curiosity. He didn’t come in as a sales person to push and sell his stock. You can tell the difference between a super passionate person and a sales rep, and that is a contagious thing … to be a part of it. Freddy is that person who expands your creative vision,” Stacie recalls from their first visit.

Freddy is grateful to these kinds of chefs, “The chefs who say, ‘wow, I’ve never seen that before,’ as if it were a great thing. They want their minds blown, they want to try that new variety, and really, really taste it.”

He is kindred spirits with adventurous chefs, “Beyond the set reductionist produce profile that grocery chain outlets have sold us, there’s a huge world out there.”

Walking with Freddy through his orchards I marvel at the number of apples and pears I’ve never seen or tasted before. The surrounding limbs droop with fruit with patinas like impressionist paintings. One hundred cultivars and 700 trees on a single acre keep Freddy really, really busy.

In his 20s, before taking up apple farming, Freddy started foraging wild mushrooms and selling to nearby chefs. Known for his remarkable finds, he began a continuum of discovery that was to last a lifetime. That journey eventually included a friend’s orchard and a ‘Golden Russet’ apple tree, whose taste reminded him of Muscat grapes from his childhood. Freddy’s face reflects that first wow moment, “I never tasted Muscat flavor in an apple and knew I had to grow that fruit.”

In the mid-90s, Freddy accelerated his pursuit of heirloom apples with a couple hundred cultivars grafted onto about 50 trees. He reminisces, “Baking pies, making sauce at home, I was using ‘Spitzenberg,’ ‘Boskoop,’ but saw good chefs cooking with ‘Fuji’ and ‘Red Delicious.’ I felt outrage and an irrational impulse to right this wrong; to provide the great culinary quality apples that I knew these chefs needed.” He began selling his apples to a few restaurants.

Freddy kept finding new cultivars and needed more land. In 2005 he gained access to another acre and planted 700 trees. His focus was tart apples with intense flavors “‘Red Delicious,’ ‘Jonagold,’ ‘Fuji’ and most other commercial varieties are very mild in taste. I wanted to grow the apples no one else was growing, apples with powerful flavors — ‘Spitzenberg,’ ‘Allen’s Everlasting,’ ‘Ruby Red’ … a good ‘Suntan,’ properly ripened, tastes of banana and pear, pineapple and vanilla.”

Continually exploring, Freddy has just test-grafted 50 new cultivars. One of his resources is the California Rare Fruit Growers, a network of small and large-scale collectors sharing local fruit knowledge and scion wood, touring collections, assembling tastings, arranging presentations, demonstrations, and workshops.

Through Freddy, Stacie has become a learned apple aficionado, “Some of Fred’s apples are so tart, you couldn’t really eat them out of hand, but they have layers of flavor. That’s what I’m looking for … firm, high in acid.”

Back in Freddy’s kitchen, Stacie finishes her galette with an apple glaze made from the peels and cores. Thickened on the stove, they are rich in pectin, the ingredient necessary to give a sauce substance. In a lesson learned from Alice Water’s kitchen, no part goes to waste.

Stacie joyously explains, “What I got from Chez Panisse was that you don’t want to mess with it too much, don’t want to add too much; just add enough of yourself to make it delicious.”

“The most exciting thing for me in this job is to gratify infinite curiosity in ways you never imagined possible.”

 … and in Stacie’s dessert, I could taste just that.

Over the past 25 years Julie Ann Fineman (aka Julie Brothers) has created a diverse body of work photographing on five different continents. Her images include food and travel for Bon Appetit magazine, celebrities, ad campaigns, posters, product endorsements and philanthropic work for causes in Africa and Croatia. In 2011 while still accepting assignments, she took a new direction to immerse herself in organic farming at Rainbeau Ridge in Westchester County, New York.

A kaleidoscope of farm experiences cast a spell on Julie … goats breeding and dying; the midwifery of births late into a snowy night; a most unusual relationship with the insecure peahen, Genki; walks with Llulu the llama. She turned incubated turkey eggs daily, witnessed their hatching and corralled the farm birds into the coop each evening. She milked goats and made goat cheese, she planned crop rotations and succession planting, calculated seed spacing and planting schedules. With persistence and an ultimate display of faith, she saw an entire season through, concluding that organic farming is not for the faint of heart.

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