Saturday 14 November 2009

A is for Apple - an Apple a day keeps the doctor away ...

Harvest time is over, the mists, damp, grey skies are here, the cooling rain is in the air waiting to knock the final full fruits off their boughs, above the gnarled trunks, into the long damp grass beneath. The autumn offers us free foods in the hedgerows – the apples abound in the lanes, or are hidden in the back gardens or estates of larger properties lying on the ground providing essential fodder for insects, larvae, small mammals who can lay up extra nourishment before the winter sets in.

Cox’s Orange Pippin

The apple has seeded itself all over this England of ours, descended from the wild ancestors of the pomaceous fruit tree (“pomum” – Latin for apple) found growing in the mountains of western Asia (the species Malus domestica is part of the rose family, Rosaceae). Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) is credited with bringing the apple back to Macedonia (north of Greece), from where it spread, as exploration occurred, to the rest of the world.

Red Gravensteins

Winter apples, picked in the late autumn stored just above freezing, have been an important food in Asia and Europe for thousands of years, as well as the Americas with the arrival of the Europeans in 1492. Storage of the apple enabled it to become possibly the most versatile and ubiquitous fruit we have in the world. The Gravenstein apple, still considered the choicest apple by many Nova Scotians, for instance was possibly introduced by Russian fur traders travelling via Jutland, Denmark to the New World early in the 19th century.

Fairs and fetes bring the fun of apples out, or at home with the children participating in the making of toffee apples here in England .. an apple coated in hot toffee, left to cool before tucking in to that delicious mix of gooey toffee and fresh apple; or in the States as candy apples (a coating of hard crystallised sugar syrup) or even caramel apples.

The proverb “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” reputedly dates from 19th Century Wales .. came to remind us that there are enormous health benefits in an apple, particularly antioxidants, albeit there may be relatively low amounts of vitamin C, the fibrous content of apples may reduce the risk of bowel, prostate and lung cancer.

Five hundred years ago Henry VIII with his voracious appetite and vast court, needed to be fed at each of his palaces, or when a nobleman was honoured by a kingly visit, ensured continuation of the fashion for planting orchards filled with the fruit and nut trees of the day, also importing new species from the continent, guaranteeing a plentiful fresh larder at all times of the year.

Our two thousand year association with the apple and its various cultivars is still as strong today as it was then – in the last century it was realised that a great many of the old non-commercial varieties of tree were being lost, let alone the orchards themselves. These fields of fruit trees, with an undergrowth of meadow like habitat, have over the centuries provided symbiotic havens, for insect life, wild flowers, reptiles, small mammals and on the fringes the hedge rows provided natural plantings for use by blackbirds, song thrushes, woodpeckers and the like.

Alexander fighting the Persian king Darius III From Alexander Mosaic, from Pompeii, Naples Naples National Archaeological Museum (Battle of Issus 333BC - Mosaic detail)

There are 3,000 or so different types of apple, dessert apples and cookers, some readily available, others almost forgotten, surviving in old gardens or places that are tucked away – such as Bardsey Island. A gnarled and twisted trunk growing within ancient monastery boundaries on the island, was probably tended by the monks who lived there a thousand years ago: the Bardsey Apple has had cuttings taken, which will raise funds for the Island Trust, as well as save a singular apple species.

A Cider Press Jersey, Channel Islands

Who would think that names such as Slack-M-Girdle, Pig’s Snout and Hangy Down Cluster would refer to misshapen, tannic and rough-skinned apples ideal for making our English cider. While other ‘pomologists’ have been recording, crossing, classifying these fruits of the earth, these tempters of fate: as Eve found out – to ensure that we keep a rootstock of these delicious and subtly flavoured apples.

A dumpling – a Norfolk one – is an apple that has been brought back to life in the garden of a former rectory. A retired doctor found an ageing specimen, along with over 50 other varieties, in his orchard and it has taken this apple expert over 25 years to grow a young tree, which has finally fruited: the Norfolk Dumpling. We need dedication like this doctor in this day and age, with so much grubbing out and our lack of knowledge of these ancient natural plants, to ensure that these special varieties are preserved.

Apples do not grow true from seed, so in order to propagate a new tree a bit of the old is required: a piece of budded “scionwood” must be hand-grafted onto sturdy rootstock and nurtured as it grows. Think of the thousands of hands that have lovingly created countless new trees, since the Roman Naturalist, Pliny the Elder praised “the Lady apple” a tiny fruit in the first century AD.

Fresco from Pompeii with fruit. Annurca apples believed to be the apple depicted in frescoes at ruins of Herculaneum and mentioned in Pliny the Elder's "Naturalis Historia".

By the 1600s the French were devouring this succulent wee treasure, as it may be “eaten greedily with all its coat on” - the small fruits were able to be secreted about a courtier’s person in their pockets. Today in the States they ripen late in the season – hence being known as Christmas apples, or Annurca variety. Our ancestors knew the best way to eat these treats – raw as the peel adds to the winey, semi-sweet taste of the flesh.
Claude Monet's Still Life with Apples and Grapes (1880) Art Institute of Chicago

Cox’s Orange Pippins are our Christmas apples in England, their creamy-coloured flesh is crisp, fine-grained, hinting of Christmas tastes - honey, nuts and pears – they store well and can be used in a variety of ways. These too are relatively small, albeit commercial cultivars tend to have become larger fruits. As a child I remember shaking the ripe apple to see if their pips rattled, as they are only loosely held in, whereas other apples have their pips contained as part of the apple flesh.

The French Orchards in Normandy very possibly came from the pips dispersed by the Romans and Norsemen (early Normans!) in the pomace (the residue of skins, pulp, seeds and stems of the fruit), which was spread in the pastures as manure – resulting in many seedlings. The Normans brought large quantities of these apples trees to Britain after 1066.

Apple trees of many varieties live on, new cross variants being tested are so versatile and can be used in all sorts of recipes both savoury and sweet, soups, starters, breakfast, as a vegetable or a sauce, stuffed inside a game bird to give a bit of flavour and juice – or as an early cure for keeping the doctor away. Apples also have other attributes – such as keeping potatoes from budding, by including an apple amongst their midst; or how about putting an apple in the bag to ripen avocados or bananas? Such a treasure of a fruit ....

Dear Mr Postman on this weekend of gales and floods – thank you for delivering this story up to my mother – I have been taking my time as the apple is an enormous subject, and as I’ve a great many letters to write on my mother’s behalf for her birthday, together with the letters that I have felt I wanted to do for my uncle to let everyone, who was unable to attend the funeral, have ‘a feel’ of the day: which seems to have been appreciated: though I’m lettered out!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot said...

Hilary, you are a true inspiration and force of nature. From one little pip an apple tree has been born. You're the apple of my eye:)

Please keep writing your wonderful letters and sharing your positivity with the world!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Annabel - thanks for coming over .. and I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post. & I'm honoured to be the apple of your eye ..- thank you!

Thank you too for the comment about the letters and sharing my positivity .. it's good to be cheerful and happy - negativity does no-one any good!

All the best - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Patricia said...

This apple diaglogue is getting to be a fine discussion for this time of year. Nice post and thank you for your knowledgeable comments on my apple tree post.

Your comments and Betsy's have provided a wealth on information and I am busy following up ...on how to get the tree to come back from the root stock...Washington State is Known for producing more apples than anywhere else in the world...and that is saying a lot....but the experts are giving up their orchards these days...they are getting hard to find.

Wilma Ham said...

Oh I forgot to put apples with other fruit that you want to ripen. I have avocados that could do with an apple.
We have lots of apple trees in our garden, all different varieties and ripening at different times.
It is great to get some heritage varieties back, I absolutely do not like messing with nature.
After all your letter writing you deserve an apple or some cider :)
Love to you and your mother.

Marketing Unscrambled, Home edition said...

Hello Hilary,

You have been very busy with letter writing. Hope that your mother has a wonderful birthday. Give her a hug from her fans.

Apples are amazing, you can do so much with them. Thank you for the history of how they have come to be all over the world. What a great post. We always learn so much by visiting your blog. Have a great day.

Dan and Deanna "Marketing Unscrambled"

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Patricia - Thank you - just glad to have helped a little.

Good if you've got an expert you can talk to and that your special tree will be growing anew sometime soon. Here in England there are fewer apple farmers for a number of reasons - demands of the supermarkets, cheaper fruits from abroad, demand for each fruit to be identical ... etc

It's reassuring to know that the older cultivars are being preserved.

I also understand that apples should be grown in groups so that they can pollinate.

Good luck with your revival .. enjoy the week and finding out about your tree -
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Wilma - thank you - yes we forget how fruits and plants help each other. Being in NZ I can imagine you'll have quite a few trees in the garden - and retaining the best of our trees for future generations.

Thank you - I'll have an apple later on and as you suggest perhaps some real cider!

Thank you for your love to us both -

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Dan and Deanna .. yes, I have been writing quite a few -and yes she did enjoy her cards etc and is always grateful for all thoughts from family and friends.

As you say apples are amazing and I'm so pleased people are dedicating their lives to retain these old cultivars.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord said...

Hi, Hilary! I've seen you out and about in the blogosphere and wanted to see what your blog is all about. I loved this post! I have loved apples since I was little: I'm a fall baby, so the smell of apples does something wonderful to me. It's in my DNA, I think! I didn't realize that apple trees can't sprout up from seeds, alone. That's very interesting. Thank you for this great, information-packed post. I'll be back!
~ Megan

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Megan - Happy Birthday for sometime now! Great to see you here and thanks for coming over - I think we all join up sometime .. and like you visit other blogs and drop in to others.

I guess lots of our fruits etc grow from seeds either taken by humans across the seas or lands, or like birds and animals also do .. spread the seeds around .. especially apparent in the African bush.

So pleased you like the post and its content - nice to have you here and it'll be good to see you again ..

Thank you - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Davina said...

I learned a lot from this post. Had no idea the saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away” originated in Wales or that apples keep potatoes from budding. On our farm we had an apple orchard that grew crab apples -- fairly sour taste, but we'd snack on one or two every once in a while. They made great applesauce.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Davina .. thanks for being here - yes - crab apples a species unto themselves, as you say quite tart, but make good sauce. Crab apples are full of pectin so make excellent jelly. Hybrid crabapples are grown for their close crop blooms - very pretty in early spring.

How lovely to grow up with an orchard ..

Thans for visiting - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Evelyn Lim said...

I love apples. I have one almost every day! However, I prefer them raw and not baked or cooked!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Evelyn .. yes - they are very good for you and better raw .. but they do make good desserts, and tonight I'm doing a baked apple with honey, raisins and a buttery filling - I'm looking forward to it! Raw too - I often have them in my salad ..
Thanks for being here - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Liara Covert said...

As a student in Normandy, I did not notice the same details that you presnet here. Thank you for expanding the perspectives of your readers. You invite everyone to broaden their horizons and discern more than they initially see with the physical senses.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara .. you've certainly travelled - now Normandy. I certainly am expanding my own horizons - but it is so interesting to learn how the treasures of the world - the plants, fruits, trees, vegetables etc have travelled the world and arrived where they are now ..

Thanks coming over - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories