Today, 21st October, is Apple Day; time to celebrate the harvest of our orchards and to pick those apples that still remain on the tree before the storms forecast for this weekend bring them to the ground.
The first task when picking is to sort the apples into those that will keep and those that must be processed quickly, even if they will then be stored in a different form. The recipes that accompany today’s article should give you some ideas for those that are to be processed.
In an earlier article on this website I suggested that Community Orchards could play a vital role in reconnecting people with their food and kicking off a people’s takeover of our food system –http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2010/06/community-orchards . Because our climate suits them so well, apple trees were once planted in every garden and reached their zenith of popularity in Victorian times. England has an estimated one-third of the listed apple cultivars in existence. Farm workers were paid, at least in part, with cider, and many pubs made their own. Orchard fruits, and in particular the apple, represented the bulk of the fruit we ate in the UK – they are a cornerstone in our culinary heritage. Nowadays the banana is the most purchased fruit in Britain and when we chose what fruit juice to drink in the morning, orange reigns supreme despite being given a run for its money by more exotic imports in recent years.
Whilst these imported fruit have a place in our diet, things have turned around to such an extreme a recent survey by The Daily Telegraph found that that at the peak of our home-grown apple season just one in eight apples on sale in the major supermarkets was British. Tesco has taken out billboard advertisements to say that it will be stocking 10 British apple varieties this year, presumably spread across the season, and although this is an improvement they obviously feel warrants shouting about, it is still a ludicrously small percentage of the 2300 plus varieties indigenous to this country.
It is not only a wider variety that you will find on offer if you trouble to buy direct from growers or plant your own fruit trees. You can also enjoy fruit that has been left on the tree to achieve full ripeness and been sprayed far fewer times than their supermarket counterparts. In return you will need to accept that apples are not of uniform shape and size and that they may also have a few blemishes. But the superiority of taste and texture is winning a new generation of fans for British apples.
An appreciation of the seasonality of apples is another thing that we have lost with supermarkets. Apples are available all year, not just from abroad, but our own can also be kept in storage year round in an atmosphere where not only humidity but also the “air” is controlled to remove gasses that affect the ripening process. Picked early and stored in this state of suspended animation, British apples can also be offered year round. No wonder we get bored with them. Understanding the changing nature of apples throughout their season provides a fundamental lesson in getting to grips with the vast range of native varieties.
In their natural state, the first apples ripen in August. With the exception of a modern variety called Discovery, these early apples are not often available commercially, even on a small scale, since they have a very short lifespan, softening rapidly from the moment they are picked. These are a treat known almost exclusively to those with their own tree. Because the whole crop will need using in such a short space of time, I find juicing an excellent way of storing them for longer, but be aware that the quantity yielded is very low.
September apples will keep for a week or so once picked and so we start seeing apples available for sale. Dual purpose varieties are useful at this time, although it is rare that any apple is truly great in more than one aspect. James Grieve is a good example of how the use of an apple can change during its season and also dependent on where it is grown. It is Scotland’s best known apple and here usually considered a cooker, whilst in southern England it moves from being used for cooking at the start of the September to a crisp eater by the end. Blenheim Orange, primarily considered a dessert apple from October onwards, will hold a good slice when cooked towards the end of September. It is worth noting here that developing apples just for cooking is something uniquely British. On the continent all apples are considered dual purpose. It is the acidity in apples that causes them to break down when cooked. Our famous Bramley’s Seedling is one of the most acidic, hence its ability to cook to a frothy pulp. However, this is not always the required result, for example in a French Tarte Tatin or our own Apple Charlotte – for which an early Blenheim Orange is ideal. Mary Berry’s Canterbury Tart perfectly illustrates the different characteristics that may be required from a cooking apple. It utilises the sharpness of grated Bramley to cut through a rich, creamy egg and butter filling before being overlaid with slices of dessert apple. But whilst these slices provide both visual appeal and texture, it is the Bramley’s acidity that ensures the flavour of apples really comes through. The recipe already appears online, so I won’t repeat it here, but you can find it by following this link – http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/canterburytart_72796. Before leaving September, I’d like also to mention my favourite of the month the aromatic Lord Lambourne. Its depth of flavour is unusual in mid-season apples making this my juicing apple of choice.
October marks the peak of the British apple season. Apples that ripen in this month are of a firmer texture than those that have come before and the only ones that will store for a lengthy period.
By the 16th century the term “Pippin” had come to denote a hard, late-ripening, long-keeping apple of acid flavour although originally it referred to any apple that had been grown from a pip rather than by grafting, so the name is not a foolproof guide to these qualities. Of those that are, Cox’s Orange Pippin is the best known because it was so widely planted over southern England in the latter half of the 1800’s. There are numerous regional variants including the Ribston Pippin (Yorkshire, 1707), from whose pip the Cox was reputedly grown, Sturmer Pippin (Suffolk, 1800), King’s Acre Pippin (Herefordshire, 1899), and Wyken Pippin (Warwickshire, early 1700s). Cox’s Orange Pippin was also crossed with other varieties to produce other notable late-season dessert apples including Laxton’s Superb (x Wyken Pippin), Tydman’s Late Orange (x Laxton Superb) and Winston (x Worcester Pearmain).
Many of the Pippins will still not be ripe for eating in October and will continue to develop in storage. Similarly the category generally referred to as “Russets” will not reach their peak until December. Egremont Russet is the best known of this group and the only one widely available on a commercial scale. However the term Russet refers to the dull brown and rough finish on the skin of some apples, which may be full or partial. This is found in many late apples and whilst, as a generalisation, russeting does appear to equate to an aromatic flavour of which the British are particularly fond, there are exceptions to this general rule. My favourite in this group is Ashmead’s Kernel, although I have yet to taste Rosemary’s Russet, said to be one of the finest flavoured.
In addition to the russet and pippin dessert apples, most cooking apples also store well, although their sharpness will deteriorate over time. Annie Elizabeth is particularly valued for its keeping qualities but where the acidity of a Bramley means that the apple flavour comes through no matter how many spices or added flavourings you use, Annie Elizabeth is more delicate and best cooked more plainly. Newton’s Wonder is another such, making both of these apples ideal for serving raw in winter salads. If you are looking for a lesser-known alternative to Bramley’s Seedling try Dumelow’s Seedling, an older variety that was very popular until the Bramley became the commercial favourite.
Having established the variety is suitable for keeping, remember that only unbruised apples will store. Windfalls, including those you drop when picking, should be used quickly. Those that are to be stored should be placed, untouching, on trays, in a cool outbuilding. If stacking the trays, ensure that air can still circulate around them and remember to check them regularly – you know the saying about one bad apple! Setting a mouse trap or two is a good idea, as they will certainly be attracted by the smell of ripening apples. Dependent upon variety and your storage facilities, these apples can see you through until March, but certainly until the first forced rhubarb arrives.
For those apples that won’t store, see this month’s recipes for inspiration.