A few weeks ago Wench Joanna celebrated oranges and lemons
in a blog post. Today, as Apple Day approaches in the UK, I thought I would
talk about apples. Apples are like reverse oranges and lemons; they aren’t
rare, they aren’t generally exotic although these days some apples have been developed especially for their exotic look and taste, and they will grow just about anywhere in
the UK. Yet until the 18th century most eating apples were
considered luxuries and sold mainly in London. It was the humble cooking apple
that was a staple of the ordinary man and woman’s day-to-day diet, which was
why it was particularly important to store apples correctly so that they would
last over the winter. Chaucer, in The Cook’s Tale, laments
the way that one rotten apple can turn the entire barrel and this was pretty important when the apple was a fundamental source of food.
Apples have a rich and varied mythology. Greek and Roman mythology refer to them as symbols of love
and beauty but equally they have a bad side. Although the bible does not
specify that it was an apple that Eve offered to Adam in the Garden of Eden, referring to
it only as fruit, an apple has often been used to depict the forbidden fruit. Apples also get a bad reputation in some fairy
tales, most notably in Snow White. In Arthurian legend the Isle of Avalon, where Arthur is laid to rest, translates as the Isle of Apples. The Swiss National hero William Tell was said to have shot
an apple off his son’s head with a crossbow in order to ransom both their
lives. The symbolism and mythology of apples is everywhere, perhaps because of
their satisfying shape, perhaps because they are everyday items yet beautiful.
The arrival of the apple
Apples arrived in Europe from the Tien-Shan Mountains of
China, accompanying traders along the Silk
Road. Homer’s Odyssey mentions
apples and apple orchards. Whilst there is some evidence that apples actually
grew wild in England during the Neolithic period it was the Romans who brought
the cultivated varieties to England – (apples, rabbits, carrots, parsley, feet and inches…That’s
what the Romans did for us!) The apple was particularly valued because all of it is edible, even the pips and core. However too many apple pips can be fatal as they contain a cyanide compound.
Many Roman villas had their own orchards. These were
abandoned after the Romans left England in AD 383 but the apple flourished in
the wild and King Alfred the Great was the first to mention English apples in a
document of 885 AD. The Normans brought with them new, improved flavours and
the orchards of medieval monasteries grew apples of the variety Costard, from
which the word costermonger, an apple seller, comes. Costard was a cooking
apple. It’s counterpart as an eating apple was the variety Old English, which
is recorded as far back as 1204.
Costermongers are first mentioned in the 17th
century and they developed their role from apple sellers to being all-purpose
fruit sellers on the streets of Regency and Victorian cities. They would use a loud sing-song chant to attract attention
and would generally sell their fruit from a hand cart or basket. (Hence the
phrase “don’t upset the apple cart” which was first used in the late 18th
century). Costermongers gained a fairly unsavoury reputation for their
"low habits, general improvidence, love of gambling, total want of
education, disregard for lawful marriage ceremonies, and their use of a
peculiar slang language."
The Queene Apple
You often hear about the great devastation caused by the
plague the Black Death in 14th century
England; it’s a little
known fact that it wiped out apples too because there were so few people left
to cultivate the stock. A series of droughts in the Middle Ages put orchards
under further strain and the Wars of the Roses finished them off. It was Henry
VII who was the unlikely saviour of the English apple. He instructed his royal
fruiterer, Richard Harris, to establish large-scale orchards in Kent. The most
common apple in the Tudor period was called The Queene after Elizabeth of York,
The Gravity Tree
A couple of years ago I visited Woolsthorpe Hall in Lincolnshire where Isaac
Newton is said to have formulated his law of gravity when an apple either fell on his head
or he saw one falling from the tree. The orchard at Woolsthorpe still contains
the variety of apple that supposedly fell on Newton from what is now know as
the “tree of gravity.” It’s a pretty amazing thing to stand there and look at
those apples and think about the role they played in scientific discovery!
The New World Apple
Meanwhile, over the other side of the Atlantic, the Pilgrim
Fathers discovered that there weren’t many edible apples around. The
Massachusetts Bay Colony requested seeds and cuttings from England and other
settlers brought apple stock to Virginia and the South West. The first apple orchard in North America was planted in 1625 by Reverend William Blaxton but it is probably John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed, who was the most famous pioneer nurseryman for the apple, planting nurseries rather than orchards across a number of states.
The most famous pip of the English Georgian period was planted in 1809 when Mary Ann Brailsford grew an apple tree that was to become
the mother of all Bramley apples. This was a very useful cooking apple as it worked well in pies, desserts, chutneys, jellies and cider making. By this period almost every farm from Northumberland to Cornwall had an orchard. Labourers were paid in cider right up until the end of the 19th century.
Such was the reputation of Oxfordshire’s famous 1818 Kempster Pippin apple, which was developed into
the Blenheim Orange variety (which is confusing!) that coaches would stop at Woodstock to allow people to glimpse the apple trees and thieves would shin over the orchard wall at night to steal some wood to graft! Here's a Blenheim Orange on the right.
Unlike exotic fruits, which can only survive the British climate in a hothouse, apples flourish here, and apple trees still grow wild in the hedgerows. The number of customs and games that we have created around the apple echoes the importance it has had in our lives. Bobbing for apples used to be a traditional Halloween game when I was a child. I can't say I enjoyed putting my face in a bowl of water in an attempt to catch a fruit but it was a custom that went back centuries.
And that brings us on to cider. In England we have the Normans to thank once again for popularising cider drinking and the medieval monasteries enthusiastically applied themselves to cider production. To this day the UK is the largest cider-drinking nation in the world.
I'm a big fan of cider and when we lived in Somerset 20 years ago we enthusiastically
took part in the old tradition of the cider wassail, first recorded in 1585.
This was a ceremony of drinking a toast to the apple trees in the hope that
they would give a good harvest the following year. I wrote my first traditional
Regency, True Colours, when I was living in Somerset and I included a cider
wassail in the story. In the Regency period as well as marching to the orchard
and raising a glass of cider to toast the health of the harvest it was also the
custom to loose off several rounds of ammunition in order to scare away any
evil spirits that might be lurking around the trees to put a blight on the
harvest. Needless to say, by the time we were taking part in the cider wassail
ceremony that element had been banned for health and safety reasons. In True
Colours and in my own experience the wassail was followed by a big barn dance
with mulled cider for refreshment and plougman's cheese, bread and pickle to go with it. A fine feast.
Tonight I'll be celebrating the apple harvest with a dish of monkfish served with potatoes, pancetta and cider. I heard a celebrity chef say recently that fish and fruit should never be served together but in this case I definitely make an exception to that rule! it's delicious.
Are you a fan of apples? Do you cook with them or enjoy apple juice or cider? And are there any apple-related traditions where you are?