When we got back from our travels just before Christmas, we travelled back and forth across the south of England on the train visting family. I’ve got a vivid memory of looking out of the window into gardens backing onto the train line, and seeing numerous apple trees, leafless in the winter cold, and surrounded by a carpet of rotting fruit.
When we finally moved back into our own house in Sussex, a similar sight met us with a tree in our garden. Clearly our tenants hadn’t been into apples. Or maybe they had – but like so many people, were inclined to buy plastic bags of New Zealand or South African or French (!!!!*) apples from the supermarket and ignore the free fruit growing just outside their own door.
Britain has been going this way for decades now. And it’s a great tragedy. Britain, especially the south of England, has an ancient history of apple growing. Cider is synonymous with Devon and Somerset, for starters. Yet I’ve got another strong memory of driving through Devon and stopping for a picnic – beside an orchard of mature apple trees, one of them vast like an oak, all of them dropping their fruit into a rotting carpet in the grass.
Rotten to the core
It’s not just the fruit that’s rotten though, it’s the supermarket-dominated system that somehow believes it makes more business sense – which is different to actual sense, common sense, or future-of-the-human-race sense – to waste or neglect or our produce that is.
Or, as Paul Waddington says in Seasonal Food, “… if a kilo of apples has made the flight from New Zealand in March, are they really going to taste as good as the stored British variety? … are the New Zealand apples really worth the kilo of CO2 they will produce compared to the 50g if the same kilo were sourced locally. Despite the fact that we grow perhaps the best apples in the world, Britain has lost 60 per cent of its apple orchards since 1970, thanks in part of the bureaucratic madness that paid growers to dig them up.”
The past few years we’ve at least been discussing the waste that goes into supermarkets only selling standardised fruit and veg (apples and tomatoes of ruthlessly controlled sizes and colours, carrots without protrusions and nobbles, bananas with very specific curves, etc). But is it already too late? Most of us have already forgotten what it’s like to eat seasonally, never mind the brainwashing that arrises from only ever encountering these cosmetically “perfect” supermarket products. We’re so out of touch with food production. I mean, when was the last time Britons en masse grew their own fruit and veg? Probably during the Second World War’s Dig for Victory, with perhaps some efforts in the 1970s inspired by The Good Life.
World leaders in apples
As with most things in life, all it needs is a little more education, and if people are better informed that can have a bearing on market forces. After all, as Waddington says, “We should be world leaders in apples. With judicious use of varieties and good storage, we can east our own produce almost all year round, with perhaps a brief gap in July.”
Now, it’s January, and the apple harvest here in England, usually August to October, is fading into a distant memory on the far side of Christmas. And yet, my local farmers’ market has one stall, Greenway Fruit Farm, that has a wonderful selection of apples. All are priced at £1.50 a kilo – which isn’t bad, as a quick scoot round mysupermarket.co.uk indicates all the UK supermarkets are selling apples at around £1.75 -£1.99 a kilo.
Last year, Britain had a “bumper apple harvest” after a dry summer, so there really is no excuse to not be eating home-grown apples his year. Not all of these apples will necessarily be cosmetically so shiny shiny, but then real apples, grown through traditional means without gallons of toxic sprays and without a wax-job, will never look like those silly massive red things you see in American movies.
We have 2,300 varieties here (listed in The National Fruit Collection in Kent; there 2,500 grown in the US, for comparison, and 7,500 worldwide) and they vary remarkably in appearance, flavour and use. Some great for eating, some for juicing, some for cider, some for cooking.
Last week, I bought a good selection of Braeburns for eating. This variety is synonymous with NZ, where is was emerged in the 1950s near Motueka (a great place for fruit and hops), a Granny Smith-Lady Hamilton cross. It’s been grown here since the 1990s though, really coming into its own in the 2000s. Its popularity is understandable as it’s a medium-large, green and russet colour fruit with a crisp bite and taste that somehow blends sweet and tart, and can be a dessert apple and a cooking apple.
For cooking, however, I also stocked up Bramleys. This variety was, perhaps surprisingly, developed from a seed planted only in 1809 by a girl in Nottinghamshire. They were first sold commercially in 1862, soon becoming established as a significant crop. The original tree is still bearing fruit.
These are the quintessential British cooking variety, accounting for 95% of our cooking apples. Usually I get mine from my folks, who have a very handsome mid-sized tree in their garden that really cranks out bright green, occasionally pumpkin-sized fruit. The ones I bought on the market were a bit different though – the Greenway lady was excited about them as they had an unusual amount of red on their skins. They certainly worked wonderfully for an apple pie.
As English as apple pie
The recipe I used this time was from Andy Bates and his Street Feasts TV shows, which we’ve been enjoying on Freesat since we got home, got settled and got a telly. It features a slightly unusual pastry that eschews the more typical necessity for cold, cubed butter. Instead, butter and sugar are creamed together, egg is added, then self-raising flour – as such it’s more like a cake batter, though drier. The final results are more cakey too, with a more spongy crumbliness than a traditional short crumbliness. It’s rather good.
His recipe also uses a filling that’s not too sweet. In the show, he explained that’s because he’s pairing it with an ice cream made with condensed milk and hokey pokey (aka honeycomb, you know, like the stuff inside a Crunchie bar). I did make the ice cream – it’s easy, with no custards, no churning, but it is insanely sweet, and his quantities are weird, there’s way too much honeycomb. You can find his original recipe here; if you do fancy making the ice cream, I’d recommend halving the quantities of honeycomb.
Here’s the pie recipe:
200g caster sugar
325g self-raising flour
1. Cream together the sugar and butter. The latter can be at room temp, or even warmed a little to make it easier to cream. I tend to nuke cold butter for a few seconds in the microwave, or if I’m using a metal mixing bowl, put in a low heat on the hob briefly.
2. Beat together the whole egg and egg yolk.
3. Cream the egg into the sugar-butter mixture.
4. Sieve the flour into the creamed mixture, combine and bring it together as a dough.
5. Wrap up the ball of dough in plastic and put it in the fridge to rest, for about an hour.
6. Make the filling.
1kg Bramley apples (about 5 or 6 medium-large ones)
50g dark soft brown sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Peel, core and chop the apples into 2cm-ish cubes.
2. Warm the butter, sugar, cinnamon and juice together in a saucepan.
3. Add the apple pieces to the sugar mix and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly to soften the chunks equally.
4. Cool the apple mixture.
1. Preheat the oven 180C.
2. Cut a third of the pastry off the ball.
3. Roll the two-thirds chunk and use it to line a tin – in the show he used a 23cm loose-bottom cake tin, but Fran’s colleague in Rome lost mine (grrrr. Still annoyed about that, can’t find a non-non-stick replacement), so I used a 25cm loose-bottomed flan tin. You could use any sort of tin, around the same size (9-10 inches for you olde fashioned types).
4. This doesn’t need blind baking, so just add the cooled apple mixture.
5. Roll out the remaining pastry and cover, sealing the edge with water. It’s not the easiest pastry to roll, but don’t worry too much, it’s so cakey, it bakes fine even if you bodge the pastry case together in pieces.
6. Crimp the edge.
7. Brush the top with milk and sprinkle with caster sugar.
8. Bake for about 45 minutes, until nice and golden.
9. Leave to stand for about 10 minutes before serving.
10. Serve with his crazy sweet ice cream (seriously, I’ve got a sweet tooth, but that stuff was too much even for me), or some plain vanilla ice cream, or cream, or custard – whatever you fancy.
Most importantly, make it using local apples.
I urge you to track down local apples, support your local economy, support local producers, support your national economy, reduce the pollution of absurd food transportation.
If you don’t have an apple tree, family or friends may have one they don’t harvest. Or you could politely scrump some by asking a neighbour. Even if the fruit looks ugly, it could be very tasty – and great for cooking up. And it’s free.
Alternatively, stock up at a farmers’ market or farm shop. Failing that, ask for British apples in your supermarket. You should at least be able to find Bramleys as they store well and are available all year round.
China already produces 40% of the world’s apples. Britons, I ask you: in ten years, wouldn’t you rather the apples available to you in your local shop or market were actually from our own once great apple-growing nation than from the country whose incredible industrial drive and growth is rapidly taking over pretty much everything?**
* I’m using the !!!! to indicate a “For flipping flip’s sake” moment as this country is not only just across a thin stretch of water from us, it’s in the same hemisphere with the same flipping seasons.
** Don’t get me started on pine nuts – I can’t find any pine nuts in Britain that are grow in Europe. Or even the US. They’re all from China. It’s boggles me, yet most people don’t even seem to notice.