by Heather Elvidge
What am I? I’m the fruit of knowledge, and also deceit. When offered as a gift, I’m a symbol of love – or discord.
I’m the legendary golden fruit that kept the Norse gods immortal. I’m the Silver Bough that sustains King Arthur even now, as he rests in the blessed Isle of Avalon. You know I’m good for you. So why don’t you eat me more often?
Yes, we should all eat more apples. This is the time to start an apple habit, because British apples are in supermarkets now. They’re later than usual because of the long, cold spring, but the super summer has made them more tasty and crunchy.
Apples were our staple fruit for centuries, whether from an orchard or a cottager’s only tree. A good keeper was treasured; some varieties could last for a year if stored properly. The best apples were spread out on racks in a cool, dark place, laid carefully on straw so they weren’t touching. Any too blemished to keep went into chutneys, pasties, or pies.
In the world of apple pies there’s a definite north-south divide. A southern pie is deep with a top crust only. In the north an apple pie is baked on a large plate, with crusts top and bottom.
And apples aren’t only for eating. When Laurie Lee wrote his well-loved autobiography, Cider With Rosie, most British farms had an orchard of fruit trees. Lee grew up in a Cotswold village after the First World War, at a time when part of a farm labourer’s wage was paid in cider.
Then, during the last century, some counties lost 90 per cent of their orchards. And when the old trees went, so did the beetles, bats, bees, hedgehogs, woodpeckers and owls that lived there.
Fortunately, enthusiasts kept many of our traditional varieties. Thanks to them we still have many old dessert, cider and cooking apples, each with its own taste and texture. Colours range from green, through gold and russet, to deep damson. Violette, a variety from the 1600s, is almost black.
Today new orchards are being planted with smaller trees that are easier to manage than the old giants. And on October 21 it’s Apple Day. Orchards, nurseries, and cider-makers are holding special events throughout the month. If you can’t get to one, then celebrate our heritage with a glass of cider and a slice of apple pie.
A sure sign of the changing season is the arrival of those bold visitors from Scandinavia, the fieldfares. They’re flocking across the North Sea to escape the hard northern winter.
These Vikings of the thrush world are no shrinking violets. They stand tall, showing off the grey head, spotted breast, chestnut back, and grey rump. Even their call is loud: a distinctive “chack, chack”, heard when the birds fly off or land.
Fieldfares come to feed in our ploughed fields by day, and roost in copses or woods at night. Later they’ll move into hawthorn trees to feast on the red berries. But at the moment there’s another attraction – fallen apples, brought down by last week’s gales.