Where did all the native apples go?
A group of us went to visit an urban garden the other day, a magical space in the centre of Edinburgh where a wildly overgrown and neglected piece of land in the city centre has been transformed into an oasis of calm, beauty and bounty for local families and wildlife. There was a little pond with hundreds of frogs, a fire pit where families could gather for a barbecue. There was even a busy beehive and a multi-storey bug hotel. There was an impressive vegetable patch and orchard which I lingered over for inspiration for my own recently acquired vegetable plot. At the end of the tour we were offered an apple from one of the fruit-laden trees. They were perfect little pink apples, unlike any we usually see in the shops, with a delicious blend of sharp and sweet flavours. I left the lovely garden bemoaning the lack of truly flavourful apples in the market.
This recent impromptu apple-tasting made me think about the disappointing, sweet but bland apples widely eaten in India, and why it should be so when India has, like Britain, a rich history of apple-growing. To hear some people talk you would think there were no apples in India before an American called Samuel Stokes planted a few saplings. His Wikipedia page (under the Hindu name Satyananda he took on later) claims: “He is best remembered today for having introduced apple cultivation to the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where apples are today the major horticultural export crop.” However, while he may have been responsible for helping to boost the Himachal economy with his easy-to-grow, high-yielding American Red Delicious apples, he by no means introduced apples to India.
I know from many trips to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh that the arrival of the ubiquitous Red and Golden Delicious apple is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is still possible, for instance, to find some of the trees the British planted in the area around Manali, which produce small quantities of Bramley and Cox’s Orange Pippin.
But according to K.T. Achaya in Foods Of India, apples in India go back even further. Amir Khusro, the Sufi mystic, mentioned apples in India in about 1300 AD. The Mughals certainly grew them, and although we don’t know what most of those early apples were like, there are ancient varieties like the Amri which are still grown in Kashmir and are believed to be indigenous.
In comparison, apples came late to America. It is believed that the apple originated in Central Asia, in present-day Turkey, and that Alexander the Great discovered the fruit in Kazakhstan in 328 BC, long before apples were introduced to North America by colonists in the 17th century.
In Britain, we have records of about 3,000 varieties, with glorious names like Hoary Morning and Keswick Codlin, although we too have succumbed to the ubiquitous, bland Delicious varieties which are much easier to grow in huge volumes. The more interesting varieties are generally the preserve of very small-scale growers, like my local urban gardeners. And so it is in India—if you’re in the mountains during the apple harvest, it’s worth asking around about old orchards which still grow what are now known as “heirloom” apples. If you’re lucky you will discover a whole new world of apple flavours.
As well as being a wonderful thing to eat straight from the tree, the apple is a versatile friend in the kitchen. It’s great in a whole range of pies, tarts and cakes, of course, but one of my favourite recipes is an apple, celery and tomato soup. There may, however, be no finer dish for good-quality apples than the humble crumble. In fact, it might be the apple’s finest moment.
Much loved in Scotland, crumbles are often regarded as a winter dish. It says something about the summer that we’ve eaten crumble several times recently.
Crumbles can be thrown together quickly. Plums, cherries and especially Cape gooseberries make wonderful crumbles.
150g plain flour
50g light demerara sugar
50g caster sugar (or 100g of caster if you can’t get demerara)
750g apples (I usually go for the sharpest apples I can find)
A little extra sugar for the apples, if necessary
You will need an ovenproof dish. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
Weigh out the flour into a bowl, then add the butter. Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs (lightly, as if you were making pastry.) Stir in the sugars.
Peel, core and slice the apples and tip them into a pan. Taste a slice to see if it needs any sugar. Remember that there’s sugar in the crumble topping, so even if the fruit is quite sharp you won’t need more than a tablespoon of sugar. Add a splash of water to the pan, maybe a squeeze of lemon if the apples are very sweet. Cook until the fruit starts to soften.
Tip the fruit into the ovenproof dish, then sprinkle the crumble topping. Bake for about 30 minutes or until, as restaurant critic Fay Maschler once put it, “the moment when the juices surge up and caramelize the crumbs”. Serve hot with thick, cold cream.
The Way We Eat Now is a column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.
The writer tweets at @eatanddust