The Apple is the world’s most popular and useful fruit with a history dating back into pre-history. The variety of uses exceeds only the number of varieties (or cultivars) available. In fact, there are more than 7,500 cultivars.
Apples are a relative of the rose, and like roses, may be grown from seed or grafted, as are most apples used in production of foods. While a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, the flavor of apples varies from very tart to very sweet. The apple is used for eating raw, commercial uses, cooking, and cider production.
Speaking of cider, most people only try two or three versions in their lifetime: the clear, sweet variety often found in supermarkets sold in gallon jugs; the unfiltered variety, with a translucent, almost opaque, deep caramel brown color; or the sparkling, carbonated variety that is sold in bottles reminiscent of wine. These three hardly represent the vast variety of ciders available. I recall visiting the Farmer’s Market in Usk, a small city in Monmouthshire, Wales, where I sampled more than two dozen superb ciders, ranging from the sweet through crisp to tangy, ending with a hard cider that (apologies to the French) was not dissimilar to a Champagne. I have to say, each had incredibly unique properties and all were utterly delicious.
History of the Apple
Apples originated in Turkey, and are among the first cultivated trees in human history, its fruits being improved through selection over thousands of years. The only apple native to North America is the tart Crab Apple. In the 17th Century, colonists brought apple seeds with them to America; the first orchard being grown by the Reverand William Braxton in Boston in 1625.
Alexander the Great is credited with finding a dwarf apple in present day Kazakhstan in 328 BCE, returning with them to Macedonia. Of course many learn the story of the serpent tempting Eve with the apple of knowledge – from the tree God held sacred, telling Adam and Eve never to eat its fruit. For generations, a student would bring an apple to his/her teacher as a respect of knowledge. While many believe the pomegranate, not the apple was the tree of Adam and Eve, it is quite possible, the apple was the tree, as it was widely grown throughout the region of Central Asia and present-day Middle East.
Apples appear in many religious traditions, often as a mystical or forbidden fruit. One of the problems identifying apples in religion, mythology and folktales is that the word “apple” was used as a generic term for all (foreign) fruit, other than berries, including nuts, as late as the 17th century. For instance, in Greek mythology, the Greek hero Heracles, as a part of his Twelve Labours, was required to travel to the Garden of the Hesperides and pick the golden apples off the Tree of Life growing at its center.
Winter apples, picked in late Autumn and stored just above freezing temperature, have, for millennia, been a food staple throughout Asia and Europe. In America, apple seeds were carried along Native American trade routes, yielding orchards throughout the United States and Canada from coast to coast.
Variety is the Spice of the Apple’s Life
In America, we think of apples as either as a side dish or a dessert food – apple sauce or apple pie, and of course, a drink – apple juice or apple cider. Our thinking is very narrow, as apples provide much, much more opportunity. Our supermarkets rarely have more than five varieties of apples at any given time, with some as regulars, such as Granny Smith (green – best for salads), Red and Yellow Delicious (good for eating) or Macintosh or Rome apples (suitable for baking). Some newer varieties are popping up seasonally, such as Jonathan Golds, Gala, Fuji and others. Even these are more standard today than some of the more exotic varieties.
Americans are very finicky about the look of our food. Apples, on the other hand, are not so finicky about how they grow, so often, they don’t look as nice as shoppers expect. Millions of apples each year are rejected for the simple fact they don’t look as shoppers would like. These are often used for seeds, but more often used for animal feed. That’s a shame, because a blemished or oddly shaped apple could provide nutrition for the poor, who are less likely to discriminate about the look of their food. Animals can readily survive on apples that have been damaged or have spots.
Hard Cider and Alcohol
In recent years, hard cider has returned to common use in America, though its use is still growing. Americans, unlike Europeans, are not yet accustomed to the delicacy of hard ciders, and thus far have only tried a few varieties. There are many more that will be developed in future years as brewers discover the infinite variety of flavors they may create in the field of hard ciders.
Laird’s Applejack has been a staple of many a bar in America for decades and remains the North American version of the French Calvados. Cooks should discover applejack and use it far more routinely in place of the far more expensive French version. Applejack adds a wonderful touch to sauces and dishes that is very soothing to the palate. It’s marvelous in soups, such as Butternut Squash.
Apples in Cooking
The apple is one of the oldest ingredients used in cookery, and has paired with roast meats, particularly pork, for more than 1,500 years. Apples have been used in pies, cakes and other baked goods for more than 2,200 years – the ancient inventing the first apple pie in the area of Samarkand, and the Romans perfecting the pie, today known as the ‘Crostata’. However, despite the sweetness of some varieties, the earliest apples were crisper, far less sweet, more tart and used in other foods than desserts.
In ancient cookery, we find apples most often cooked with meats, eggs, cheese, and even fish. They were a staple of the earliest stuffings and sauces. In essence, the apple produced superior ingredients of all kinds. Some of the earliest meat pies were flavored with apple, as were some of the first sandwiches. Ancient recipes denote the use of apples with eggs, mixed with water, salt and spices, cooked in some fat or oil, as an omelet. Others recommend sliced apple to stuff fish, with herbs, such as rosemary and tarragon, citing the refreshing crispness of the apple, which keeps the fish fresh.
All in all, the apple’s versatility make it a grand and glorious part of human history, and important in the development of mankind’s gastronomic experience, international trade, commerce and even our faiths. Other things we treasure are often associated with the apple – the potato – apple of the earth (pommes de terre) and the pomegranate (apple with many seeds).
Apples are a food worth exploring for young and seasoned chefs alike. It is equally important to winemakers, brewers, liqueur makers, mixologists and even to nutritionists, as the old adage says, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Let’s all do The Apple!