Celebrating Lughnasa in NoCa

The noises started in late spring, sort of an irregular popping sound, occasionally loud enough to wake us at night. It sounded like someone was bouncing tennis balls off the fence in back. What were the raccoons up to? It couldn’t be the opossums. One lumbered along the fence every evening as night fell. But she was quiet as she moved to another yard. 

My T-shirt reads: Polytheism. Why have just one imaginary friend

It took a few weeks before we figured out the noise was made by apples falling from our side yard neighbor’s tree. It just got louder as the little green apples grew larger, thudding onto the garden pavers, banging onto the metal shed roof.
When the tree leafed out last spring, Holly was delighted to find it’s a Gravenstein, the apple of her youth. Grandpa warned Holly and her sister not to eat the unripe apples. “They’ll make you sick.” But they just couldn’t wait. They ate them and liked them and never got sick. Grandma would make apple sauce for every dinner during apple season.

I come from apple country too, in Yakima, Washington. But we didn’t grow Gravensteins, which ripen earlier and don’t require the cold nights up north. Our Macintoshes and Red Delicious apples ripened in October and in my day school was let out so kids could help their families with the harvest. To me there is nothing like the taste of a ripe Red Delicious picked right off the tree. I never tasted a Gravenstein until I moved to California.

The iconic apple of Sonoma County was brought to the continent by Russian fur traders. It is said they planted the first tree in 1811 at Fort Ross on the Sonoma coast. Gravensteins ripen in July and August here. The tart fruit doesn’t last long and must be processed or eaten quickly. This year we had a bumper crop. Branches grew far over into our yard so that we had to duck under on our way to the recycling bins. 

By the third week of July the emerging red stripes on the green fruit told us they were ripe. Fortuitously Holly’s cousin Kerri is an apple aficionado. She lives in Roseville and travels to Santa Rosa annually to buy a lug of Gravensteins for pies. Her method is to process them all at once, coring, slicing, sugaring enough for each pie (seven cups of apples) and then freezing in plastic bags for the making of pies and crisps all year long.

Holly, Kerri and Diana on the disassembly line

Just as the apples ripened we were lucky to be visited by Kerri and her apple coring machine. She came with all the ingredients for making pies—sugar, cinnamon, flour, crisco. Holly’s sister Diana was here too, from San Diego.

Our first chore was to pick the fruit, reliving our childhoods. We gingerly climbed the six-foot ladder, each taking a turn and being especially careful. We were sobered by the recent death of a friend, Chris Jones, who fell from a ladder while hanging a gay pride flag in his yard in San Francisco.

Then we set up an assembly line, coring, slicing and sugaring. What music goes with apples? We chose Lady Gaga. You can dance and core at the same time. Then Kerri made three pies. One we gave to the neighbor, whose apple tree it is. The two others we ate with gusto. And we still have ingredients for many more pies in the freezer. Then Holly and I cut up the remaining small apples and made four quarts of apple sauce. 

And that’s how we celebrated the cross-quarter pagan harvest festival. Called Lughnasa by the Celts and Lammas by the Anglo-Saxons, it’s one pagan festival not appropriated by christians. The first of three Celtic harvest fests, Lughnasa is celebrated on August 1 or 2, about mid-way between summer solstice and autumn equinox. But, as with the other pagan holidays, we extend festivities for as long as we like. We will continue to celebrate the apple harvest at the Gravenstein Apple Fair this year in August 17 and 18 in Sebastopol.

Good harvest to you!

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