All about apples
Fruit trees have existed in Britain since Neolithic times. The Celts and Norse settlers were sustained by native species like Crab Apple, Gean and Sloe. Apples as we know them today can be traced back to the wild apple trees of Kazakhstan which spread naturally to Syria. The Romans found apples growing there and brought them to other parts of the world. They also learnt to graft and selectively breed apples according to size and taste. In England, the earliest recorded mention of apples was by King Alfred around 885 AD. Improved varieties were introduced from France following the Norman conquest. By the 13th century there was a blossoming of fruit cultivation and cross-breeding to produce an ever wider selection. By the Victorian era there were some 1,500 different types of apple – a figure which is believed to have risen to more than 2,500 today.
Throughout this history The Weald has been a particularly fruitful place for growers and has boasted hundreds of acres of orchards, with tree varieties selected over the centuries to suit the soil and climate. Most farms had an orchard, providing supplies for cider, cooking and eating apples and a range of other fruit. Fruit and hops were never described as growing in fields, always ‘gardens’ or ‘orchards’. One explanation is that tithes – taxes paid to the church – were claimed on fields but not gardens.
Throughout ancient cultures, the apple – be it tree, fruit or blossom – is seen as a symbol of fertility, goodness, as well as a protection from evil and a potent symbol of magic. Orchard ‘wassailing’ is one legacy of the many myths and legends associated with apple trees. Wassailing is a ceremony often involving song and dance where people drink to the health of apple trees in the hope that they will bear well. Drums, bells and whistles, and the beating of branches with sticks are used to wake the sleeping powers of fertility and to ward off evil influences. Cider is poured over the tree roots or bread, soaked in the ‘wassailing bowl’, is placed in the tree branches as an offering back to the tree.
At Standen Street Orchard we grow a great number of different types of apples. We know their names but in most cases we don’t know where the trees are planted. So at apple picking time the only way to tell whether an apple is a cooker or an eater – and whether it is excellent, mediocre or poor in taste – is the ‘bite test’: that is to pick one apple from the tree and try it. Our long-term aim is to identify the varieties that we are growing. As part of this process we need to ‘map’ the orchard and all its trees – with the help of local schools and colleges perhaps – before varieties can be professionally identified.
Here are some of the varieties that can be found at Standen – these are names and flavours that you won’t necessarily find on the supermarket shelves :
Adams Pearmain, Allington Pippin, Ashmeads Kernel
Blenheim Orange, Bramley
Calville Blanche d’Hiver, Christmas Pearmain, Cox Orange Pippin
Egremont Russet, Ellisons Orange
King Charles Permain
Laxtons Superb, Lord Lambourne
Newton Wonder, Non-Pareil
Tom Putt, Tydeman’s Early Worcester
William Crump, Worcester Pearmain
When you think of apples, just think of the amazing versatility of this food staple: from satisfying starters such as parsnip and apple soup, to accompaniments for pork and chicken/goose such as apple sauce, to main courses such as apple pancakes, to desserts such as apple sorbet or baked apples, to gorgeous drinks such as freshly juiced apples with pear and orange, or the more potent apple ciders. We mustn’t forget the afternoon delights: apple cakes. The following is a traditional recipe, very easy to make and utterly delicious if served with a dollop of whipped cream. It is best eaten on the day it’s baked but experience shows that it never lasts more than a day anyway!
You will need:
125g unsalted butter
125g castor sugar
2 tablespoons of vanilla sugar
A sprinkling of salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
Apples such as Coxes or russets – ca 5 or 6 depending on size
Heat oven to 180 degrees C for fan, or 200 degrees C for conventional ovens
Peel and core the apples, cut in quarters
Mix butter, sugar, vanilla sugar, eggs and salt in a bowl or food processor, add flour and baking powder gradually
Grease a 10 inch round baking tin and add the cake mixture
Place the apple quarters on top of the cake mixture, working from the middle in a swirling pattern and placing the apple quarters quite densely
Bake for 90 minutes – check after an hour that the apples don’t burn
Leave cake to cool, sprinkle with granulated sugar and serve with whipped cream