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.


Rouchswalwe said...

Apple snow! I am agog. Lucy! Isn't it enough that I have an apple soul from being born in Frankfurt am Main? With its Apfelwein? Apple snow ... could you, would you ... the recipe please!

the polish chick said...

yes, yes, me too! it sounds fantabulistic and it made me salivate. please, dear lucy, do share!

Roderick Robinson said...

Almost a negative mantra: "You can't eat them, they're cookers."

I'm always on tenterhooks when you do apples. Prizing crispness above flavour I know that Grannies are going to get it in the neck and lo I was right. I feel so ashamed. But tell me is there anything in the world more disappointing than an apple that's gone soft. Where the flesh no longer resists the teeth and the tongue is left detecting the micro-structure - miniaturised cotton balls.

I note the use of the word "pectin". For years I've retained that word, hoping to toss it into an article or a conversation, proof that although the kitchen is alien territory I'm aware (in a journalistic Autolycus fashion) about what goes on there. But now you've stolen my fire and I'm reduced to my fall-back: isinglass.

A W-shaped tree! I can see it in one of your photographs not yet taken.

earlybird said...

Apple snow... now there's something I remember from my childhood...

I've pretty much forgotten what a Bramley tastes like now...I use Reinettes, Reine de Reinettes or the more scented Chantecler which I think I like best.

And I couldn't agree more with BB's observation about there being nothing 'more disappointing than an apple that's gone soft'... except, except... I remember taking wrinkled apples in the semi dark from the apple storage racks when I was a child and whilst they weren't exactly crisp they were sweet and delicious - not soggy though. I suppose they were Coxes.

Julia said...

Please do post the recipe for apple snow! Also, thank you for sharing your apple memories; I can so clearly see your apple tree down by the wall.

Lucy said...

Thanks people.

I don't remember the recipe for apple snow, except it really was that simple, whipped up egg whites and sweetened apple puree in about equal proportions. I looked at some on-line recipes and mostly they seem to add whipped cream in some form, either to the mixture or on top, and one involved biscuit crumbs on top, though I'd have thought an amaretti or langue de chat or similar served with it would be fine. Anyway, I'll try it out and report back!

Of course it does of necessity involve raw egg, if only the whites, which everyone's a bit finicky about now...

Pectin - I once visited a hairdresser who stuck my hair down with a spray made from apple pectin. It smelled nice.

I know crispy apples are the ideal, but in the days when sugar was a luxury, and fresh fruit unavailable in the winter, a soft sugary stored apple must have been something of a treat.

herhimnbryn said...

I miss them too, Lucy. Can't get them here in Oz. Apple pie made with any other apple is not apple pie to my mind. Ditto apple sauce.

When making Toad in the Hole with pork sausages, my Mum used to add thin wedges of Bramleys apples....'twas divine (I used to eat meat then)!

HKatz said...

little-boat smile
I've never heard a smile described this way; it's both sly and adorable.

I enjoyed your reflections on apples and cooking apples in particular. A post suited for autumn; I love anything to do with apples, but especially this time of year. Apples with cinnamon, apples dipped in honey...

Unknown said...

I too only appreciated Bramleys in later life. Acidity counts more as you grow older. Juice made with a blend of Cox's and Bramleys is superb. And so too is apple sauce made with Bramleys.

Lucy said...

Hkatz, the little boat is sort of pinched from Heather herself, who wrote somewhere of 'un sourire comme un petit bateau' (I think I'm quoting right) of another of her children. Her own smile is rather the same so it must be a family thing!

Plutarch, yes though in a way it seems odd to grow something deliberately sour then have to add extra sugar, and yet of course this makes for a greater intensity of flavour than a naturally sweet apple has. The Burrow Hill cider farm used to sell excellent varietal apple juices, including a Bramley one.

Dick said...

This rich and vivid nuzzle around amongst apples evoked memories of the orchards stretching away behind my grandparents' cottage. Endless tolerated scrumping and then apple snow in the kitchen.

Pam said...

They look like Bramleys to me. We get them from a neighbours' big apple tree which drops apples on to our garden. It would be a shame to waste them...

Lucy said...

The lines about the smile go like this:

Un sourire comme une barque
En berce le jour

or, in English,

a smile like a small boat cradles the day

Thank you to Heather, and for the translation.

Confound my memory!