Apples, apples, apples.
They permeate my entire life. The baking of my grandmothers, making apple tart, each with her own personal touch. The delight of my father, tucking into apple tart with cloves after dinner (in the middle of the day, of course) . The omnipresence of apples and their perfume in the outhouse…we thought of them as being a commodity like clean air…always there, always waiting to be turned into something lovely, at short notice. Given 15 minutes, a bowl of stewed apple was ready to be served. The pleasure of my own children, fighting over who got the crustiest slice of tart, and the differences between the pro- and anti- custard factions. And what the sight and smell of a home-made apple tart does to men….if only young women knew life was so simple….
The ritual of harvesting the apples marked Autumn for us. Early eaters such as Beauty of Bath had to be eaten before the wasps got them. And eat them we did…at the end of a bountiful summer, the first bite of a Beauty of Bath stung the salivary glands into action so much that it hurt. Long before I heard of balance in food, or ying and yang, I knew that these apples had a completeness about them. The other eating apples were picked and eaten or given away to happy friends and neighbours. Meanwhile, my parents would discuss when would be the right day to harvest the Bramleys. On the day, everybody helped out. These apples were precious- “handle them like eggs” and would see us through the winter until the end of Lent. A large pit was dug in the ground, ‘ the size of a human coffin’ and lined with straw. Ladders were positioned against the trees, and one of us would hand the apples to the other who would place them carefully in a basket, and carry them to my Mum who would lay them carefully on their straw bed. Only perfect apples could be stored. Any blemish might introduce contamination and rot the entire hoard. Layers of straw and apples continued until the level of the mound was just above ground level. After a final layer of straw, earth was heaped over the precious harvest, to make sure that it was sealed. Hopefully no vermin would access this treasure trove. They never did.
On a routine, frosty winter’s day in the New Year, my Mum would announce that she’d be opening the pit soon, as the apples stored in the outhouse were about to run out. We took spades and carefully removed the earth. I will never forget the perfume of the apples..a little like the refined nose of the best cider… in the clear winter air. A bucket of apples was withdrawn and the pit closed again. Only when we came to an age where we could be trusted not to injure the apples, and to close the pit carefully, were we allowed to do the job alone. The amazing thing is, the sugars in the apples had fortified during their hibernation, and they could now be eaten out of the hand if only they weren’t so big.
Now I always keep Bramleys in the house, from September to March. They have the status of being a basic human right. It goes without saying that they have a low carbon footprint as they grow locally. And they constitute one of the recommended five-a day fruits and vegetables in the ideal diet.
A bowl of stewed, unsweetened Bramleys lives in our fridge all winter. A few dollops are lovely on porridge, muesli or buttermilk pancakes. To say nothing of what stewed apple does for roast pork!
Apple tart is a fast food in our house. Shortcrust pastry is made in triple quantities and frozen in batches sized for one tart.
Apple crumble can be made by any child once they’re able to use the food processor- they love being able to specify which spice they’ll use…cinnamon or cloves, or lemon zest, or a mix of all. A handful of blackberries with cooked Bramley apples is a marriage made in heaven.
Jars of apple chutney wait to accompany curries and cold meat.
Pork a la Normande is a delicious casserole of pork fillet medallions with cider, cream and Bramley apples. Ying and Yang find perfect equipoise in this dish.
Bath Apple Cake is the cake most in demand in our house at the moment. Cake with Bramleys in it wears a halo, as it seems to be SO good for you. I make double quantities so that it is frozen, and our Leaving Cert student takes a square to school in her packed lunch every day. It also makes a very popular traybake.
Bath Apple Cake
(courtesy of Marguerite Patten)
8 oz Bramley Apples (weighed when peeled and cored)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 oz Demarara sugar
12 ozs self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
5 ozs butter
5-6 ozs sugar, to taste
3 ½ ozs raisins, if you like them
2 large eggs
8 tbsps milk or cider
1 oz Demarara sugar
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Preheat a moderate oven, 180°C/ 350°F/ Gas Mark 4
Line an 8” ( 20 cm) cake tin with bking parchment or buttered greaseproof paper
-Peel and core the apples, weigh and dice into 1/2” cubes. Blend the cinnamon and Demarara sugar and coat the diced apple with this mixture.
-Sift the flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
-Add the caster sugar, beaten eggs, milk and apples, folding until well mixed.
-Spoon into the prepared cake tin, spread flat on top and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon topping.
– Bake for approximately 11/4 hours ( you know your own oven!) until golden brown and firm to the touch. If the cake is browning too quickly, reduce heat by 10°C/25°F/one Gas Mark after about an hour, or cover lightly with greaseproof paper (this won’t work in a fan oven).
-Remove tin from oven and cool on a wire rack. When cool, cut into squares.
As I type, I can hear echoes of Stevie Wonder… “You are the apple of my eye….”
As Thanksgiving approaches, it is indeed time to count and be thankful for our blessings.