Sybil Kapoor on why apples are an embodiment of our national psyche
The next time someone tells you that they don’t understand the British, take them aside and quietly hand them a sweet Saint Edmund’s pippin or a tart bramley apple.
Look them square in the eye and tell them they have to study British apples, as only then will they truly understand the depth and complexity of our national personality. Of course it’s quite likely that they will immediately consider you a lunatic, but I am quite in earnest.
The apple is the one fruit that we identify as being peculiarly British, despite the fact that it is grown all over the world. The wild crab apple, Malus sylvestris, has flourished here since at least the Neolithic period.
Its small, intensely flavoured fruits were said by our Celtic ancestors to be imbued with magical powers pertaining to love, fertility and regeneration. Very un-British some might think, but who has not bobbed for apples at Halloween or bought a pretty Christmas wreath woven with dried apples and evergreen?
The latter is a modern development of the old winter kissing bough of evergreen and mistletoe. Such customs are the continuation of ancient rites. Think carefully before you next hand someone a pot of homemade crab apple jelly.
Slowly but surely apple trees were domesticated. Whether this occurred before or after the Roman invasion is unknown. Some suggest that apple cultivation only really blossomed with the arrival of the Normans when the great monasteries imported new varieties from France, some of which were used in the making of cider.
Wet and windy
One thing is certain; the domesticated apple tree thrived on our wet and windy island. It was perfectly suited to our national temperament as it combined the much-loved virtues of adaptability, tolerance, productivity and diversity. It quickly became a symbol for love, learning, temptation and utopia.
Even the Puritans, not known for their culinary good taste, encouraged the tending of orchards for the benefit of body and soul. The cult of the apple had begun.
According to Sue Clifford and Angela King in their book England in Particular, “you could eat a different kind of apple every day for more than six years and still not come to the end of the list that can grow in Britain. An amazing 2,000 varieties of dessert and cooking apples have been cultivated in this country, as well as hundreds of cider apples, which are specific to the West.”
Roving street sellers
From the earliest of records, it is clear that the British rapidly became connoisseurs of apples. Every pomological aspect was considered, from their taste and appearance to their keeping ability and cooking qualities. Roving street sellers would hawk roasted apples, while the rich would enjoy elegantly spiced apple-flavoured broths, soups and pies.
By the late 13th century, demand outstripped supply and large quantities began to be imported from France. English growers, not wishing to be outdone, began to plant popular French varieties such as costards, blandurels and ricardons.
The rivalry between home-grown and imported apples continues to this day. The braeburn apple, for example, was first discovered in 1952 in New Zealand and for many years was imported into Britain during the summer months. Today, they’re grown and sold here.
Indulgent frivolous fruit
The British apple season tentatively starts in late July. These early apples are loved as indulgent frivolous fruit, as they don’t keep well and must be enjoyed immediately. To appreciate a gladstone apple, you must pluck it straight from the bough, as its sweet juicy flesh quickly turns woolly and dull.
By early August other fragrant dessert apples start to appear, such as discovery and beauty of Bath. Such apples can be thrust into pockets for munching while lazing over a holiday book or ambling on a long summer walk.
Frivolity and fun are as essential a part of the British character as is a love of practicality. Apples, unlike peaches or pears, travel well in pockets and can be eaten as easily up a tree as on a picnic rug.
The apple world
As the season progresses into September and October, so do the numbers of varieties that will store well through the winter. These are the sophisticates of the apple world. Many are imbued with another much-admired quality—the aptitude to improve with age.
Originally, an apple’s ability to be stored for long periods of time in a cool loft or outhouse was essential to ensuring its commercial success. Crucially, it had to maintain its texture and flavour. The superbly flavoured dry-fleshed blenheim orange and the pretty cooking apple Annie Elizabeth, for example, keep perfectly in cool conditions until May.
In Britain, eating (as opposed to cider) apples can be divided into three groups: cooking, dual-purpose and dessert. Cooking apples were developed in the 19th century as a result of the incredible popularity of apple puddings. A good cooker should be large, flavoursome and acidic. If it lacks acidity, its flesh will not cook into the fluffy pulp so essential for apple sauce, apple snow and baked apples.
Bramley’s seedling remains the dominant commercial apple, but there are many other wonderful varieties to discover, such as golden noble (considered the best cooking apple by many), warner’s king (ultra-fluffy) and dumelow’s seedling (acidic, coarse-textured and perfect for making mincemeat for Christmas).
The love of acidic cooking apples is peculiar to Britain. Their tart, sweet taste can be found in countless dishes from spiced parsnip soup to pork forcemeat balls. Over the centuries we’ve developed and updated myriad puddings ranging from apple and blueberry charlotte and apple and calvados soufflé, to apple and rosewater pie and apple ice cream.
It’s hard to choose, but perhaps my favourite apple dish is apple cheese, as it encapsulates the intense, smooth-textured, sweet-sour apple taste of a good cooking apple. It’s wonderful eaten with cheese, dried hams and, of course, other fruit cheeses such as damson or quince.
Dual-purpose apples are mainly used as dessert apples, but because they tend to be very acidic early in the season, they can be used as cookers. Classic examples are James Grieve (early September) and Charles Ross (mid-September).
Dessert apples are a world unto themselves. In Britain, they are mainly eaten raw. This is because the more sugar an apple contains, the better it will hold its shape when cooked. This makes them perfect for continental dishes such as pork or pheasant with apple, spiced red cabbage and French apple tart, but not so good for many traditional British dishes.
Instead, connoisseurs judge British dessert apples in all their naked beauty, according to their shape, colour and family history, as well as their fragrance, taste and texture. Apples with russeting or a rosy blush often indicate a better flavour, as the fruit has been exposed to warm days and cold nights.
It’s worth experimenting by buying different varieties, as they will change week by week during the peak season of September to December. You will be amazed by the incredible variety, but take care, as apples are very addictive; you may never escape this ancient cult.