Apples are taken for granted in our supermarket multi-choice world.
It’s easy to overlook this humble fruit when compared to the more exotic options so readily available. However, the apple is still king in my house, and I must confess to having a geeky fascination with this fruit and its several thousand variations.
When I was small, I was dragged around countless markets and can clearly recall the huge choice of locally grown apples. Then, during the 80s, French-grown golden delicious made an appearance and, thanks to a hugely successful advertising campaign, they became the must-have lunchbox fruit. I was never a fan, finding them overly fluffy and bland, but their increasing popularity meant that the British apple growing industry took a mortal blow.
Many ancient orchards were cut down in favour of more profitable concerns and my heart sinks when I consider how many rare regional sub-species ended up as sweetly scented fire wood. In centuries past the apple tree was a symbol of fertility and plenty. Such was the orchard’s importance to rural communities, ‘wassailing ‘or ‘apple howling’ was a common custom, taking place on twelfth night (January 17) with songs and toasts like this from Margaret Baker’s Folklore and Customs of Rural England.
Here’s to thee, old apple-tree
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow!
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow!
Hatsfull ! Capsfull !
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
With this tribute, the apple trees were blessed, and often given libations in the form of cider and sometimes bread or cakes. Due to the importance of orchards, the idea of chopping down a healthy tree was considered almost sacrilege, sure to bring bad luck and failed crops. Unfortunately, although the wassailing custom lived on, the old superstitions did not, and between 1970 and 1997 more than 60 per cent of UK orchard land vanished, much of it to housing developments.
In recent years, what we lost has been recognised and community orchards have sprung up around the country such as Gorse Hill Nature reserve orchard near Ormskirk. They hold an ‘Apple Weekend’ in October (I won’t lie, this sounds like my kind of weekend). Other community projects aim to restore old and neglected orchards such as Holly Mount orchard in Ramsbottom. Last week I visited Astley Park in Chorley and was delighted to find the walled garden bulging with apple and pear trees. I can’t wait to return when they are all in bloom and later in fruit. Considering the difficult times in which we live, it made me wish more community spaces were planted with apple and other fruit trees so that the produce could be available to those who want or need it.
Commercially, many dedicated cultivators are building up new orchards able to give imported fruit growers a run for their money. When they are in season you will at least be able to buy cox’s orange pippins and russets with their darker leathery skin from your local market. In my opinion these are proper apples with denser flesh and an old-fashioned apple flavour.
We are all familiar with the proverb ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ and it’s largely true. They are high in vitamin C and are natural anti-oxidants especially good at cleansing the liver. However, our native wild crab apples are considered more medicinally valuable and feature in many folk remedies. They were used to treat stomach upsets and insomnia. Apple water made from the fruit lowered fevers and cider made from crab apples was thought a health drink for those suffering from rheumatism and arthritis.
The ancient tart crab is my favourite apple by far and was once a highly-regarded fruit. In Egremont, Cumbria, the Crab Apple Fair has been celebrated since 1267 and is perhaps aptly coupled with the world gurning championships. Anyone who has ever tried to eat a crab apple raw knows why these make such a perfect partnership. Given their sourness I was surprised to discover that crab apples were once given as love tokens. I’m not sure how much of an aphrodisiac they are, but they certainly make delicious jelly and – as I am reliably informed – superb homemade wine. I’ve never seen crab apples for sale and usually collect them from various places, or barter for them from someone’s garden trees. Indeed, the first two trees I planted in my own garden were crab apples.
If you fancy having a go at growing your own there are now experts like Clifford from Fruitscape, a Doncaster-based one-man concern, offering apple growing advice and expert pruning skills. I met Clifford at a garden centre last autumn, with his display table covered in more than 30 different kinds of apples. They were beautiful to behold and hard to believe they were all grown in his suburban back garden. Now, there’s a garden I would love to visit. He had hard-backed tomes full of listed British apple species and I could have talked to him for hours. Although I am never likely to have even half his knowledge, he did give me the confidence to try to grow my own tree. I had thought my garden too small but after listening to him I decided to give a cooking apple tree a go.
Most people immediately think of Bramley apples when they consider a cooking apple but with a little research you can find a hefty list of options suited to your location and situation. I plumped for a dwarf Emneth Early, also known as an Early Victoria. It’s a good cooking apple which fruits before many other apple trees and is hardy. I had to be careful to get a smaller tree as we have limited space and already have an old plum tree. It might be a long time before I can produce enough apples to meet my requirements, but at least I can barter in the meantime.
Last year I accidentally managed to barter such a large amount of garden apples that I had a glut. I made vast quantities of chutney, crab apple jelly and even crab apple wine. However, there were still ten kilos of apples left over so we borrowed a press and made our own cider. It is still percolating under the stairs but hopefully by summer it will be ready to sample. If it doesn’t work or goes sour we may be left with a demi john full of cider vinegar, which is no loss either. Apple cider vinegar is a favourite of mine and is well documented for a variety of medicinal purposes. In one of my old herbal books, Folk Medicine, about 90 per cent of its remedies involve apple cider vinegar. Although it is not a panacea for every ailment, there is some evidence to suggest that it helps with insulin regulation and weight loss. It is also a powerful anti-septic and anti-fungal so can be used to treat a raft of skin complaints. I’ve also read about its use for digestive disorders and even stomach ulcers thanks to its malic and tartaric acid content. Apple cider vinegar was once a popular hair rinse, thought to add lustre to long hair.
In recent years, apple cider vinegar’s properties are making something of a comeback and last week in a health food shop I spotted several cider vinegar related remedies including digestive tonics, hair treatments and slimming tablets. Even cider has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years.
Long may the popularity of apple products continue because while they’re profitable to grow, the remaining commercial orchards will thrive. And perhaps as reliance on food banks continues to increase, councils might consider growing orchards and edible herbs in parks instead of ornamental trees and seasonal bedding plants. Wishful thinking, I know.
Happy Apple Howling.
DISCLAIMER: These are some of my personal experiences of using the above herbs combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate; in the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult a herbalist or your GP. Always check if any pharmaceutical medication you are taking is compatible before trying herbs. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the herbs mentioned above please stop using them immediately. Always take care when identifying plants.