If J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I could measure mine out in apples. For those fussy nursery years, the inoffensive blandness of the Golden Delicious, which I wanted pre-chopped in my lunchbox but would refuse to let my mother put lemon juice on to stop it turning brown, because the idea of something as exotic as lemon juice seemed, to my picky infant self, a truly atrocious adulteration of my lunchtime snack. During my pre-pubescent years, having figured out that the Golden Delicious was in fact anything but, I craved the juicy sweetness of the ubiquitous Pink Lady, soothed by the succulent flavour of homogeneity. The perfect apple for a child who just wants to blend in. For my teenage years, I favoured the Granny Smith. Hard, speckled and slightly sour, I think this apple is a fitting metaphor for my experience of adolescence.
Coinciding with my early twenties, the period where I developed a fully-fledged love affair with food and cooking, was an experimental promiscuity with various fruit varieties. The discovery of farmers markets and organic delis saw flirtations with esoteric apple cultivars such as Blenheim’s Orange Pippin, Discovery (an apt name for an apple that fuelled this period of culinary adventure) and Egremont Russet. I remain an ardent lover of the latter, for its dusky burnished skin and fragrant, orange-scented flesh. More understated and quietly complex than the neon Granny or the supersweet Pink Lady, this is an apple for grown-ups. Or, at least, for those who are vaguely aware that they should be attempting to ‘adult’ on a regular basis. My life has come a long way since those picky infant years, and so has my taste in apples.
I’ve been thinking a lot about food waste and global food production recently, particularly the ways in which our aesthetic and gastronomic tastes as consumers affect these issues. I hope we are all now aware of the horrible truth that farmers are forced to throw away wonky carrots, blemished tomatoes and improperly curved bananas because the supermarkets, conscious of an apparent consumer desire for perfection, will not sell them. I find it bizarre that Waitrose offers bags of ‘weather-blemished’ apples and pears, priced slightly lower than their other orchard offerings – which, presumably, have had zero contact with any form of weather and are grown in some kind of vacuum pod lined with bubble wrap under light simulators. If we have to be reminded that some of our fruit and veg may be less than beauty pageant-worthy because it has been besmirched by the hands of Mother Nature, something is very wrong indeed.
I was recently given a bag of apples by a Danish friend, from the tree next to her garden. Speaking about Danish apples to a colleague of mine, and to my friend, I found it very interesting that both of them described these apples as ‘sweet, not Pink Lady sweet, but still sweet’. Strange that this relatively new cultivar, a mixture of Golden Delicious and Lady Williams, has become the apparent benchmark against which all other apple varieties are measured. Strange that this fruit, which must meet strict quality control standards for sugar content, firmness and blemishes, and is often grown in far-flung hot climes, has become the apple of choice for so many, shouldering domestic varieties out of the picture – particularly if, heaven forbid, they have been so much as touched by the weather. Strange how what we consider our personal preferences are in fact so homogeneous, and dictate the offerings of our markets and supermarkets without us even realising it.
Can you remember what apples smell like? I don’t mean once you’ve given them an obligatory dousing of cinnamon and a pastry topping and put them in the oven. Until I took the bag of home-grown, Danish apples in my hands, I would probably have argued that raw apples have no smell. Yet this plastic bag, crammed with blushing apples in all shapes and sizes, was redolent with a crisp, heady perfume. Hints of rose, orange and honey mingled in a glorious waft of pure apple essence that is still strong even after the apples have spent a week in my fridge. One sniff and I’m walking through an orchard in late summer, or strolling through the storehouse of a cider press. It is, for me, perhaps the ultimate scent of autumn: crisp, cold, with some of the perfume of high summer still lingering.
Many of them are weather blemished. Some have bumps in strange places, or marks on their skins. One had a millipede nestling in its stalk (I rescued him from the fridge and put him outside). They range in size from generous globes that I can hold in two hands, to little rosy orbs that sit comfortably in my palm. Straight from the tree, these are the best apples I have ever tasted in my life. They have a complexity of flavour that the tart Granny or the sugary Lady just cannot match; I think there is something of the Eastern perfume of the quince about them, and the floral tang of citrus. I have never found any fruit like this for sale in a shop, and that makes me a little sad. What other glorious fruit and vegetable epiphanies - what smells? - are we missing out on through having our tastes dictated by the supermarkets?
Normally, I would chomp through an apple without much thought, perhaps simply to plug the gap between lunch and dinner or when craving something sharp after a rich meal. I might grate them into my morning porridge or cook them into a crumble, blanketed in butter and spice. These apples demand more attention. I’ve been looking at this fruit, so quotidian yet freighted with so much mythological and historical association, in a new light, thinking of recipes that will allow not just its crisp texture but also its perfume and flavour to come to the fore. Sometimes, when we are surrounded with not just abundance but also excess - in the form of supermarkets, advertising, restaurants - it is a small blessing to take a step back and reconsider something as simple as a bag of apples, not just for their beauty and taste but also as a symbol of how and why we consume.
I don’t have a full recipe for you today, partly because Denmark is not known for its excessive natural light during autumn and so photography is somewhat tricky, but also because I wanted to share several ideas for how to make the most of some wonderful, imperfect, quirky seasonal apples, should you be lucky enough to get your hands (and nose) on some.
- Heidi Swanson’s heirloom apple salad is one of my all-time favourite salads. I use thick yoghurt instead of crème fraiche in the dressing, and finish with a drizzle of apple-infused vinegar that I bought from a deli in France. It blends crisp, sliced apples with fragrant rosemary, toasted nuts and a sharp, creamy dressing to glorious effect, and is particularly good with pork chops, sausages, or roasted sweet potatoes.
- Another Heidi Swanson recipe (that woman is a genius): I made this unfussy apple cake last week. When you’re exhausted from combining three hours of Danish lessons every morning with your normal working day, finding a cake recipe that doesn’t require you to peel the apples before coring and dicing them is a lifesaver. I used spelt flour for a lovely nutty flavour. This is a great snack cake for that long gap between lunch and dinner (the bane of my life) - it's not full of sugar, and most of the sweetness comes from the soft, juicy apples nestled in the crumb.
- A good dinner-party starter: roll out some puff pastry, slice into squares then top each with a couple of slices of goat’s cheese, a scattering of fresh rosemary or thyme, and some slivers of apple. Brush with a little honey, scatter with some chopped nuts (walnuts and hazelnuts work especially well) then bake until the pastry is golden and crisp. These can be made bite-size as canapés, or you could make one large tart.
- Caramelise the apples in a little butter and sugar, and serve with ricotta thickly spread on hot toast. Jazz it up with toasted nuts, fresh herbs or dried fruit (or all of the above). My recipe is here.
- Simmer them into a compote with vanilla – I like to make a version with quinces too, but apples on their own are also beautiful, especially when you have good apples and you want to let their flavour shine.
- This giant caramelised apple pancake from Diana Henry is possibly the best sweet way to eat apples, and it’s a lot of fun to make (just make sure you use a non-stick pan). I reduce the sugar slightly, because the apples are sweet enough, and serve with Greek yoghurt or a dollop of ricotta.
- A simple salad of fennel, finely sliced on a mandolin, and thinly sliced apples, bound with a dressing of lemon juice and olive oil, is a fine and beautiful thing, and goes with basically everything. Be generous with the salt and pepper, and vary it with fresh herbs: dill is good if you’re serving it with fish, parsley with meat, and I sometimes add pomegranate seeds for colour and sweetness. Toasted almonds and orange segments are also good additions. I could eat platefuls of this on its own.
- A Danish-inspired recipe: sauté some pancetta or bacon pieces until crispy. Caramelise sliced apple and onions in the bacon fat. Serve on toast or with potatoes (this is definitely cold weather food and therefore demands the addition of carbohydrate).
- This wild rabbit and barley salad with caramelised russet apples is a lovely autumnal way to enjoy rabbit, an underrated meat. The sweet, buttery apples counteract the gamey nature of its flesh perfectly.