Turn into any lane off NH21 between Kullu and Manali and you’ll quickly find yourself in an orchard. Stop at any of the local restaurants, however, and unlike other great apple-growing regions of the world, you won’t find apples on the menu.
Apples have been grown in Himachal Pradesh’s Kullu Valley since 1870, introduced by the British along with trout and hollyhocks, but apart from juice and the occasional chutney, they have failed to make a mark on the local cuisine.
In northern France, every village has its own treasured recipe for tarte aux pommes and even the tiniest bistro boasts apple-based pies, galettes, crêpes, soufflés, charlottes, liqueurs, compotes and sorbets.
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Where are all the Kullu pies, crumbles and cakes? As we discovered recently, there is some consolation for apple fans at Martin Kiener’s Himalaya Sports Club, nestled in the hills above Manali. Devoted locals, tourists in the know, maharajas and the odd passing chief minister all flock to the Sunday-only restaurant where Martin serves up home-smoked fish, wood-fired pizzas and outstanding roast chicken under the dappled shade of walnut trees.
While Martin, who has lived in the valley for over 30 years, is perplexed at the local attitude to apples—“they’re only for selling”—his own dessert menu is a showcase for seasonal fruits, including a Mountain Berry Flan and, as soon as the apple season starts, apfelstrudel from his native Austria.
An authentic apfelstrudel is one of the home baker’s most feared projects involving a fragile pastry, similar to Greek filo, which requires enormous patience and experience. According to an awestruck Jane Grigson, the British food writer who once watched the process, “eventually you may be able to read the newspaper through it—text not headlines: this is the counsel of perfection”.
Martin gave me a masterclass and I swear he didn’t draw breath from the moment he started to roll the lump of dough until he had patiently and tenderly coaxed it into the flimsiest of gossamer sheets. He made it look like child’s play but even with years of experience, he says, the whole thing can break into a mass of holes. His apfelstrudel was perfection: a lightly spiced apple filling rolled in a delicate crispy pastry, a fitting tribute to India’s apple country.
Make strudel on a day when you have a few hours to spare with no distractions, a day that’s neither too hot nor too cold and when you have a companion with a delicate touch on hand to help with the pulling process. Your reward will be in the gasps of amazement of your diners.
Click here to view a slide show for making Apfelstrudel
200g plain flour (maida)
1 tbsp sunflower oil
Grated zest of half a lemon
125ml of water
2 pinches of ground cloves
A handful of raisins (optional)
A handful of vanilla sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
Melted butter for basting
1 tbsp rum
Have ready a large baking tray lined with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
Sift the flour into a wide metal tray, make a crater in the middle, then add the oil. Gradually add the water a little at a time, kneading well to incorporate fully before each addition. At times the pastry will look very soggy but keep kneading until all the water has been used and the dough is soft and smooth and doesn’t stick to the tray. Pat the pastry into a ball then moisten all over with a little oil. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rest for about 15 minutes.
While the pastry is resting, prepare the filling. Peel, core and very thinly slice the apples—a mandolin is ideal to get the apple slices uniformly wispy. Tip the slices into a bowl with a handful of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent the apple turning brown. Stir in 1 tbsp of rum (Martin uses the Austrian variety Stroh 80—perhaps someone could start making a Kullu “Calavados”?).
In a frying pan, melt 100g of butter then tip in the breadcrumbs and cloves. Cook until breadcrumbs are nicely but lightly browned.
On a large table or work surface, lay out a large clean cloth, sprinkle with sifted flour to stop the dough sticking. Place the pastry in the centre of the cloth and with a rolling pin press gently into a large rectangle. Brush the entire surface of the pastry with melted butter to keep the pastry supple and prevent cracking. Cover the pastry with a clean cloth and leave for 10-15 minutes.
At this point, take a deep breath. Pick up the dough and start to stretch it gently over your hands, rather like a pizza dough. Place the pastry back on the cloth and gently pull at the edges. Martin worked deftly with his daughter Erika, expertly stretching until it was “a bit like roomali dough”. Grigson recommends doing this with palms facing down to avoid poking holes in the dough with fingers.
When the pastry is as fine as you can make it, trim the edges, using trimmings to cover any holes that appeared during the pulling process.
Breathe again. Sprinkle two-thirds of the breadcrumb mixture over the pastry, add an even layer of apple then the remaining crumbs. Sprinkle over the raisins (if using), vanilla sugar and cinnamon.
Run a knife around the edges of the pastry to loosen slightly then, working quickly, roll up tightly the pastry and filling, using the cloth underneath to keep the roll firm. Tip the roll on to the prepared baking sheet. Seal the strudel by pressing the pastry edges together, brush off the excess flour then brush all over with melted butter.
Bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 45 minutes to 1 hour until brown and crispy.
Eat hot, straight from the oven with cream, custard or ice cream.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at http://eatanddust. wordpress.com
Write to Pamela at firstname.lastname@example.org