A is for Apples

A is for Apples

Behold the apples’ rounded worlds:
juice-green of July rain,
the black polestar of flowers, the rind
mapped with its crimson stain.
                                    Laurie Lee, Apples (1983)

It's not often I find myself disagreeing with Mrs Beeton, but I believe she's wrong about apples. In her famous book of household management she cheerlessly wrote: “As a food, the apple cannot be considered to rank high, as more than half of it consists of water, and the rest of its properties are not the most nourishing.” I, on the other hand, am always grateful for an apple’s crisp refreshment on a particularly strenuous walk. Pair a Pippin or Cox with a rich Cornish pasty, chunk of salty Parmesan or a large slice of fruitcake and, frankly, you are in picnic paradise.

Why begin with apples? Well, I plan to take Folklore through the alphabet of the natural world and ‘A’ is the natural place to start. What’s more, apples are the quintessential picnic food, so they seem a doubly appropriate beginning to the series.

In fact there is a perfect apple to accompany just about any picnic ingredient. You could eat a different variety of apple everyday for more than six years and still not exhaust the list we can grow in Britain.[1] We are, without doubt, a nation of apple aficionados. Yet ironically, the apple as we know it today is not a native specie of the British Isles. We owe their introduction to our shores to the Romans, via the Tien Shan mountain range which today borders China and Kazakhstan. Though Britain isn’t without its own native variety. The wild Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris), with its small hard fruit, sour taste and parsimonious sizing, doesn’t make for a very enjoyable snack. However they can still be foraged and used to make tangy pickles and jams.

We whole-heartedly embraced the arrival of today’s domestic apple (Malus domestica) and our growing knowledge survived Angle, Jute and Saxon invaders before being developed by monastic communities, and later, English naturalists nurserymen. In his excellent encyclopaedia Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey illustrates the magic of our natural genetic cultivation. In a green lane in the Chilterns he comes across “three wildling apple trees, one with apples like miniature Cox’s Pippins, another whose fruit has a bitter-sweet, almost effervescent taste, like sherbet, and a scent of quince, and a third whose long pear-shaped apples have a warm, smoky flavour behind the tartness, as if they had already been baked”. Just think of the possibilities – you could match a cheese with each of them!

These multitudinous varieties not only have distinct tastes, they’ve also been named in a most particular, and at times amusing, manner. Sussex alone can count the ‘Green Custard’, ‘Duck’s Bill’ and ‘Nanny’ amongst its collection of native apples. Devon orchards were traditionally planted for cider, with ‘Crimson King’, ‘Sweet Coppin’ and ‘Fair Maid of Devon’ each producing delicious variations. Another Devonian apple, the “Tom Putt”, is named after a local squire who was so disliked that even his own church bells were said to ring ‘Hang Tom Putt!’[2]

Given their deep roots in the counties of Great Britain, it's not surprising that local customs have sprung up around apples. “Wassailing” is an ancient tradition where people gather in an orchard to sing to the trees and encourage a good crop. Always popular in counties in the South East and South West, the National Trust it now reviving the custom with wassailing evenings and events running in December 2016 through to January 2017. The nature of the ceremony varies from orchard to orchard and county to county, but broadly speaking a piece of toast is soaked in cider and placed at the oldest tree to encourage benevolent spirits. The participants then make as much noise as possible, often with sticks (and occasionally with guns) to ward off evil spirits. Naturally the noise varies according to the quantity of cider consumed.

Yet despite our obvious love for the apple, our many varieties are severely threatened. Paul Kingsnorth makes a detailed and rousing study of the situation in his book ‘Real England’. Suffice to say there is now little or no money to sustain these beautiful orchards. They are disappearing at an alarming rate. And with them go much needed habitats and havens for wildlife. I'm not suggesting we seek out and eat every native variety of apple in order to sustain them, but we must recognise the worth in preserving each variety. It's an incredible feat that we've managed for more than a thousand years. Without these varieties, the world - and our palates - will be a poorer place.


You can make a difference simply by choosing English varieties at the supermarket or, even better, by supporting the brilliant charity Common Ground who started the annual celebration of Apple Day (see for more details). 

[1] Sue Clifford and Angela King, England in Particular (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2006), p.14.

[2] Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications, 2013), p.14.



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