This week I was reminded of apples, by this lovely picture which Matt Christie took with his iPhone.
Apples run in packs. You bob in a bucket of them, or spoil a barrel of them, or buy a bag of them, or pick a bunch of them. Even when the devil tempted Eve with an apple, it came from a tree full of them.
On that same line of thought, thinking of one apple made me think of many apples, and, if you count this blog, I’ve written close to 15000 words about apples this weekend. And all of them ultimately sprung from the above picture.
Apples make me think first, of home. We always had apples. We didn’t have any apple trees that I recall, but nonetheless there was never a shortage of apples. My mother bought them from local orchards, and road-side stalls, or picked the ones that fell on the ground from neighbours’ trees and carried them home in her apron.
The apples sat piled in baskets or in buckets in the corners of our kitchen, great shining orbs taking the light from the window opposite and throwing it on the wall behind in strange mountainous shadows. One day when my mother wasn’t looking I snuck into the kitchen and took the brightest, shiniest apple that I could see, and with one sharp fright of a bite I discovered what she meant when she said that these were ‘cooking’ apples, not ‘eating’ apples.
We made all sorts of things from apples, most of which seemed to require me peeling an enormous number of them. My favourite was apple fritters, partly because they didn’t require peeling so many apples, partly because they were delicious, and partly because I liked the way that they were so perfectly round. I took great care to cut the slices perfectly, so that they were the same thickness all the way through, and also so that I didn’t send the apple flying off the chopping board and instead slice myself through the abdomen.
My mother made the batter by feel, slowly mixing the eggs, flour and milk until it was neither too thick nor too runny, but instead gathered slowly into thick droplets that ran ever so gently down the back of a spoon gathering more batter on the way like a snowball rolling down a mountain, then falling back into the bowl in a heavy enough drip to leave a soft dent in the batter below.
I’d dip the apple slices in the batter, and then place them ever so carefully in the pan, which by now would be just full enough of hot oil, oil which spat and hissed when invaded gently by a slice of battered apple. Then to watch the slices bob about until browned just so, dab them with a paper towel to soak up the excess oil, lay them on a plate and spoon a tablespoon of icing sugar into a metal sieve, bang it with a silver spoon, gently coat the hot slices. Never be tempted to add too much, to roll the slices in the sugar, no, because then it gathers on them in an oversweet sticky powderiness that masks the sharp taste of the apple.
And then, the inevitability of burning ones tongue, as the battered crust cools much quicker than the fruit inside.
Yes, fritters were my favourite. They were easy, beautifully symmetrical and fairly immediate.
My least favourite were the preserves.
Preserves were made always with the ugliest looking apples, the ones with knobbly bits and bruises and suspicious looking holes where worms might have burrowed. My mother would carry a bucket heaving with apples, and a board, and a stubby knife and a bag for the scraps to the table. “Please,” she’d say, “would you help me peel the apples?” And I wish I could tell you that I happily acquiesced, but I didn’t, I whined and moaned and complained plaintively about how tiresome it was, and how I might peel the skin off my finger, or touch a nasty creature that had crept into the bucket by mistake. So usually, she’d let me at it for a little while, whining and peeling, and then come and help me finish them off.
I hated every minute of peeling those apples. But I loved looking at the finished product. The peeled apples would be chopped up, and then spoons and spoons and spoons of sugar added, and spices, and the mixture would simmer on the stove, bubble and spit, even more dangerously hot than the hot oil. Boiling fruit has a particularly evil burn to it. The smell of apples would fill the house, an earthy sort of sweetness, usually with a touch of smoke as the fruit caught on the bottom of the pan. Then we waited for the mixture to cool, and spooned it into a haphazard array of jars, procured from rubbish bins and garage sales, sterilised and sealed with flat metal caps with a ring around the outside. And then the jars were put on the highest shelf in the pantry, to be eaten ‘later’.
For reasons that I didn’t fully understand, preserves were always things that were to be eaten later. We didn’t seem to ever run out of apples, and we certainly weren’t short on food, so it wasn’t as if we were pickling things to fall back on in case of a hard winter. We just weren’t allowed to eat them. This delayed gratification made me want them more, particularly as they were too high for me to reach. I’d stand in the kitchen with one hand resting on the door knob of each of the doors that opened to our pantry, and I’d open the doors just enough to peek inside, and I’d look up and stare at the rows and rows of apples in jars, all different sizes and shapes of jars, and the light would fall through the kitchen windows opposite, just a shaft through the pantry door, a lazy sunbeam that would light up the apples so that they sort of glowed up there, where I couldn’t reach.
Apples in jars were my first experience of ‘forbidden’ things that sit on top shelves. The booze wasn’t kept on the top shelf. We had an old house, without any safety latches on cupboards, and I was easily able to locate the sherry and all the poisonous cleaning products that a child might dream of experimenting with, but the preserved apples were kept out of my reach.
An apple was also at the centre of my first memory of feeling acute shame.
At my primary school, the teachers implemented a charity system where children with too much lunch were invited to donate items from their lunchboxes to children who didn’t have any lunch of their own. A teacher would walk around the playground at break times, carrying a red plastic tray in the manner of someone running a collection at church, and he or she would rattle the tray disapprovingly under the noses of the children who clearly had enough, to encourage them to give something up to the children who had too little.
I remember the red tray being thrust under my nose, and hoping the teacher would carry on by if I waited long enough, but he didn’t, probably knowing full well that my lunch box held two fat sandwiches made with proper bread and cut nicely into halves filled with perhaps thick slices of cheddar or left over lamb roast and homemade pickle, and wrapped in crisp white paper because I preferred it to cling film, and there’d be a tomato, a fat, juicy, tasty one from the man with the green house who my mother imaginatively referred to as the ‘tomato man’, left whole so that I could cut it myself, so the bread wouldn’t get soggy, and a tiny baggy with a pinch of salt and pepper, and a little snack box of raisins, and probably a fat heavy slice of cake, something dense, but not too sweet.
And, there’d be an apple.
Well, I felt sorry for the children whose mothers didn’t make them lunches, but, not sorry enough to part with any of my own. Eventually I felt shamed into contributing something, so I put my apple on the tray. But nobody took it. I listened to my one solitary fruit rolling lonely on that tray all lunch hour, abandoned in favour of bright bags of crisps and sweets. But I was too ashamed to take my apple back, even though I wanted to. And I was ashamed of myself, for wanting to.
You’ve probably surmised by now that I was a well-fed child. And you’d be right. It took me a few years to work out that just because something was delicious, didn’t mean I had to eat it all at once. A desire for immediate gratification is still something that I struggle with. I try to eat with my eyes wherever possible, in more than one sense, to avoid the negative side effects of over-indulgence.
My next memory of apples was the smell of one of my best friend’s apple scented perfume. I won’t write more about her here, because I haven’t asked her permission yet, and because I haven’t chosen her a fake name (suggestions welcome). She’s warmer than an Isabelle, not bookish enough to be a Harriet, and more glamorous than an Emily, but of that ilk. Her perfume came in a bottle shaped like an apple with a small silver leaf on the cap. I think of her, and her perfume, whenever I think of apples. I often think of buying that perfume when I walk through duty-free, but I never have, because it would be her smell that I would be wearing, and it’s not the same without her company to go with it.
Then, I have apple memories from the few seasons that I worked in an apple orchard. There, I tasted the sweetest and crispest apple that I’ve ever eaten. If I think hard enough, I can still feel the sharp bite of it, and the sweet juice of it on my tongue. But I won’t tell you the rest of that story now, because I’ve turned it to fiction, and so, you’ll have to wait until I’m done editing.
I have more recent memories of apples, too.
When my lover and I first started dating, he invited me to a dinner party he was hosting and he suggested that I pick up apples on my way, as well as wine. He asked for sweet cooking apples, and he made them into apple sauce, to go with pork.
There’s definitely a difference between the type of man who asks you to pick up apple sauce, and the type of man who asks you to pick up apples so that he can make apple sauce. Of course, if you were being cynical, you could say that we’d just started dating, and a man who wants to impress a date at a dinner party might make a sauce from scratch. But we’ve been dating a year now, and he still makes apple sauce from scratch. And when he eats apples, he doesn’t just bite into them. No, he gets a little white bowl out of the cupboard, and he takes a knife, and cuts the apple up into pieces, without any core. Then he eats the pieces one by one, taking a piece from the bowl, holding it between his thumb and forefinger, eating it in two or three bites, and then going back in for another piece.
He’s taken apple-eating one step further, by buying one of these peeling and coring machines
which you can see listed here as number nine on Stephen Fry’s top 100 favourite gadget list. My lover bought one for his father for Christmas, and he liked it so much that he bought one for himself too. The photograph at the top of the page is from the first apple he peeled with his new machine. If anyone reading this knows Stephen Fry, perhaps you could tell him that he inspired not just the eating and photographing of apples, but also an apple-based lesbian love story (coming very soon). I think he’d like that.
I am inclined to like a person who can forgo the heady lusciousness of more exotic fruit, the juiciness of a nectarine or the lusty redness of a strawberry or the plump perfection of a raspberry or the tropical tang of a pineapple, for something as straight forward as an apple.
Because as every good story teller knows, it’s the ordinary fruits that hold all the magic.