Monday, October 03, 2011
Fruits of memory
quelle est la force qui fait qu'elles soient rondes
ces pommes si bien en main rien ne déborde
mais rarement il advient qu'on les cueille
impeccables dans les airs avent leur chute
( Heather Dohollau, from Le Dit de Couleurs )
'Here are your apples,' said Heather 'don't forget them. T. picked them specially, they're not windfalls.'
They come from a tree which arches over her delightful walled garden, which isn't far from the centre of the town but where the loudest sounds are often those of seagulls in the distance from near the port or the bell of the sombre neo-classical church up the road or the occasional flutter of the collared doves in the apple tree itself.
T, her son, whisked in shortly after, and, when I thanked him, gave a quick gruff chuckle and his little-boat smile.
I've been eyeing up the apples for a little while, as to me they looked like they might be Bramleys, Bramley cooking apples are one of the things you just don't see here, but which were a seasonal commonplace of life in Britain. We had a tree in the garden of the house where I grew up. It was the apple tree, tucked away at the end of the garden beyond the caravan and the bonfire, on a raised piece of ground supported by chunks of flint and Hertfordshire puddingstone, in between which there were red ants nests - we knew every one. It was next to the raspberry canes and the compost heap and just before the ageing, snaking low brick wall which gave onto East's woodyard beyond.
The tree was in fact three stems, a kind of 'w' shape, just about possible to climb when I was small, and low-hanging so that it was easy to scrape one's scalp on it carelessly, or be swiped at by our ginger cat who became a merciless jaguar when overhead on a branch. In the spring it was thick with blossom, fragrant and always surprising. When my sister Az was in her teens and I was a young child she often used to draw it, and for a long time I had a small Scraperboard picture she made of a blossoming twig, but sadly I have it no longer, lost along the way.
Yet the tree was something of a disappointment to me when I was small. Raised on story books and readers containing romantic tropes of swings hung from the boughs of apple trees, and longing to be able to pluck a sweet and rosy fruit from our own tree and bite into it, the shape and low stature of the tree were unsatisfactory, and the huge, lumpy, light green Bramleys were all wrong: 'You can't eat them raw, they're cookers!'
And being an unsophisticated, sweet-toothed, spoiled brat, born post-rationing and used to fruit sweets and milk chocolate and orange squash (though I could eat the fresh raspberries till the cows came home), the apple pies and crumbles my mother made them into were not interesting either, and seemed sour; she probably didn't quite dare use the amount of sugar required really to make them palatable to us younger ones, so we doubtless got chocolate cake instead.
As I grew older though, and began to mess about in the kitchen (to call it 'learning to cook' would be to exaggerate my efforts at the time), I did enjoy making my own crumbles, using brown sugar and sultanas and perhaps some spices, and on warm late summer Sundays one year, I had a craze for making apple snow: whipped egg whites folded into sweetened apple purée, for which, with their even, white, rather dry flesh which softens and fluffs up on cooking, Bramleys are excellent. It was light and refreshing and genuinely quite a sophisticated dish. I can't have made it for well over thirty years now.
The bold green satin skin of the fruit among the leaves I came to see as beautiful too. I remember hearing or reading about a restored steam locomotive which was repainted in 'its traditional, apple green livery'; and the phrase made my mouth water and pucker at once.
So I grew to appreciate the necessity and goodness of cooking apples. Here though, there seem to be only eaters for sale or giving away (unless you count commercial Granny Smiths, which are supposed to be dual purpose, though to my mind neither fish nor fowl, so to speak, and not good for much), and out here in the countryside of course there are the various mongrel and wilding cider apples going begging in the hedgerows, small and hard and thick-skinned and full of tannins, though useful to add a bit of bite and pectin to jams and jellies and other preserves. The tree in Heather's garden seemed to offer the first real cooking apples I'd seen since leaving England. She is not certain that they aren't really Granny Smiths, and I haven't quite convinced myself that they are truly Bramleys, the colour and texture isn't quite right, but if they are they are Grannies then they are bigger and lumpier and of a far more interesting, tough and astringent flavour and texture than any you find in the shops. I have just cooked a panful into purée, and they certainly soften and fluff into the very pale green-gold softness that I remember.
Perhaps it is time to rediscover apple snow.