Apple of my eye
The apple is the perfect example of a fruit that can transcend barriers. It is equally as tempting raw or cooked, and is as happy being sweet as it is savoury. What’s more, apples have the ability to become a delicious liquid: refreshing juice, tart cider vinegar, crisp boozy cider and even more alcoholic Calvados.
The tree, from the rosacea family that includes pears, stone fruits and almonds, is a hardy deciduous plant that produces abundant white and pink blossoms. Laden with symbolism and embedded in myths, folklore and religion, apples have represented good and evil, love and sexuality, knowledge, sin and temptation.
On a more practical note, apples are a handy firm fruit that fit nicely in your hand, are easy to transport and, thanks to effective propaganda, make one feel particularly virtuous when consuming them. The seeds of the fruit do contain traces of cyanide, although not fatal in small amounts. I like their slight bitterness, reminiscent of familial amaretto flavours, and always consume the entire fruit heedless of the poison and of my grandfather’s warnings of an apple tree growing inside of me.
A few bad apples
Apple trees were one of the first crops grown by the early settlers. The trees, which need lots of water and a good amount of winter chill to produce fruit, are now grown all across the lower half of Australia, particularly in Tasmania, which is known as The Apple Isle. They did so well here that in the mid 1800s there were up to 120 different varieties grown, many of which were exported to England.
The first apples of the season appear in parts of Queensland as early as January but the main picking season starts in most places in February with some varieties not ready until June. Historically, apple varieties were grown to take advantage of varying ripening times throughout the season but now, like a lot of fresh produce, they are sadly bred for durability and their ability to do well in storage. Apples have always been stored, originally in limestone caves or root cellars, but modern practices utilise cold storage and controlled atmospheres to slow the ripening process and hold them for longer periods. They lose their crunch and tartness and though you can buy them all year round, often they are not terribly tasty. Your best bet in finding delicious seasonal apples is to go directly to an orchard and pick them yourself. Don’t pull them, but instead gently lift the fruit from its branch and if it’s ripe the stalk will break away from the tree.
How do you like them apples?
Apples are broken down into three main categories: dessert or table apples are the sweeter types and are usually the best for straight-up eating; cooking apples are tarter with more acid; and then there are cider apples which are mouth-puckeringly sour and best not consumed raw.
Common apples in Australia are probably easily recognised by all: Golden Delicious with their creamy flesh and subtle fresh sweetness; the honeyed Fuji, first bred in Japan, with an almost fermented flavour; and Pink Ladies, an Australian breed, super crispy with an excellent sweet–sour balance. Then there is the ubiquitous Granny Smith, tart and sour, exemplifying the flavour of green apple.
Once you step away from what you can find in supermarkets, things can get a little more tangled, sour and interesting. There are crab apples, botanically a different species, which are very high in pectin and often used to make jellies. They produce a plethora of pollen and are often used in orchards to cross-pollinate, so much so in fact that modern apples often have a mixture of them in their genes. Equally as sour are cider apples, their high acidic content and tannic skins essential to balancing the resulting drink. Continue fermenting and cider becomes more alcoholic, keep going and you end up with cider vinegar. And what about russet apples? Not a type but rather a condition – russeting is when a patch on the apple skin is a different colour and texture. The flavour can become almost deliciously nutty but they’re often not sold as they are considered imperfect.
As English as Roald Dahl
An apple in its prime needs nothing else, but the beauty of this fruit is that it works well with so many other flavours. Think fresh and crisp in a salad, like the classic Waldorf, or matched with cheese – think rich and creamy triple creams or more pungent washed rinds. All dairy works well with apples, especially when they're cooked, as in the dark caramel goodness of tarte tatin or nutmeg-infused apple pie with pouring cream. On a savoury note, apple cooked in a pan with butter and sage, perhaps to accompany boudin noir (black pudding), is heavenly. Or there's the simple flavours of grated Granny Smith, yoghurt and kithul, a Sri Lankan treacle, like my mum used to make, or gin and green apple sorbet, a more grown-up dessert that I used to serve.
There’s something about autumn and apples that conjures images of a quaint countryside and smoky fires, the warm flavours of roast pork and wood-smoked bacon, sweet spices like nutmeg, anise and cloves, and sulphurous cabbage. And a brisk walk in gumboots followed by a ploughman’s lunch with a crumbly full-flavoured English cheddar, pickles and tart apple slices washed down with a bracing cider. I blame all this strange nostalgia on a childhood of reading Roald Dahl.
Cook the recipes
Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Deborah Kaloper. Food preparation by Emma Warren. Creative concept by Lou Fay.
Always on the hunt for the next vegetable to pickle, follow O Tama Carey on Instagram.
View previous The Seasonal Cook columns and recipes.