Let’s take a break from food history. Are you craving something you can bite into and get the feeling that fall and cooler weather is on the way? A nice, firm, juicy apple is just the thing.
We just cannot get away from the historical aspects of food — and particularly of the apple. After all, it played an important role in history as far back as Adam and Eve. Today, apples are the most important fruit in Europe, North America, and other temperate regions in the northern and southern hemispheres. There are about 7,000 to 8,000 varieties of apples grown in the world.
That big, juicy, sweet apple we enjoy today is essentially a cultivated product. It is very much changed from the tiny, sour crabapple, which was the ancestor of today’s apples. Food historians tell us that the apple’s wild relatives were in the rose family, probably the rowan and hawthorn roses. The development of the apple, as we know it today, consisted of the selection of trees with unusually large fruits and coaxing these trees to produce even larger fruit.
The main ancestor of the modern apple is the common crabapple, a very small apple. One of its varieties was a native of the Caucasus, where it still grows wild. Historians tell us that these apples were being eaten 8,000 years ago. In 2000 BC, some success had been achieved in coaxing these apple trees to yield larger and fleshier fruit.
The first written mention of apples is credited to Homer in his “Odyssey.” However, the word he used was “melon,” which the Greeks applied to any round fruit that grew on a tree. The Bible is not specific about the nature of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The notion that it was an apple came much later.
During the first and second centuries, it was discovered how to produce apples of the same variety by taking cuttings and a good tree and grafting them onto a suitable rootstock, where they grew into branches producing apples. Historians tell us that it is possible that apple blossoms fertilized with selected pollen can produce a fruit that is from a different variety.
These same scholars described three varieties of apples popular in Roman times. Two of the varieties have survived until the present time. One is the Lady apple, which had been bred by Appius. It is a small hard apple. Another apple, Court pendu plat, of the same time period, is a French apple with a very delicate flavor.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Arabs, who lived in warm regions, were not interested in apples. However, apples continue to be grown and developed in Europe. In medieval England, the two leading kinds of apples were the Costard, a very large apple, and the Pearmain.
Grafting, which had been perfected earlier, became popular in the 16th century. Thus, new varieties of apples were developed, including the first Pippins, grown from a “pip” (small piece). Emigrants to America brought the first apple pips to this country, which were diversified with Native American crabapples.
A very eccentric man, Johnny Appleseed, encouraged the spread of apple growing in America. He was born John Chapman in Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1775. Chapman collected a large number of apple seeds from cider mills and journeyed up and down New England and Ohio, planting the apple seeds wherever he went.
Apples also were successfully grown in some parts of the southern hemisphere, with new varieties being developed there. Bismarck, a brilliant crimson cooking apple, was bred in South Africa.
In Britain, apples are divided into eating and cooking varieties. This practice is not followed in other areas of the world. However, an English cooking apple tends to disintegrate when cooked, due to its high malic acid.
In this country, apples are judged more by their appearance; the red varieties are preferred. However, the Golden Delicious of American origin has become a favorite for its appearance and milder taste.
From early times, apples were preserved by drying. The usual method in medieval Europe was to peel and core the apples and dry them whole, threaded on string. However, the Norfolk Biffins, a hard and dry variety were dried whole and unpeeled in warm ovens so that they shriveled into rounds. Partial coking also helped to preserve them.
All of the various preservation methods for apples lost their appeal at the beginning of the 20th century with the introduction of chilled storage. The life of an apple can be extended that way.
Many dishes made with apples are of medieval origin. Culinary writings of the 14th century give recipes for applesauce, fritters and even pies. Before the introduction of the home oven, apples were roasted whole in front of an open fire. Metal racks with curved tinplate reflectors to heat the far sides of the apples were developed.
Probably the most famous publicity for apples was the song about a prospective bride: “Can she bake an apple pie? … Yes, quick as you can wink an eye … and she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.” The following recipe is an easy one that any bride or groom could make.
■ Pastry for a 2-crust pie, unbaked
■ 3/4 to 1 cup sugar
■ 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
■ 6 to 7 cups peeled and sliced tart cooking apples
■ 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
Line a 9-inch pie pan with one sheet of the pastry. Mix the sugar and cinnamon. Add to the apples and mix well. Heap the apples in the lined pie pan. Dot with the butter. Top with the other sheet of crust and cut slits into it for steam to escape. Seal the pastry edges and pinch them together in an attractive design.
Bake in a preheated 425 degree oven for 50 minutes, or until the crust is well browned and apples are cooked through. If necessary, to keep the edge from browning too much, cover the edges with a strip of foil. Serve the pie warm, topped with ice cream or whipped cream. Serves 6 to 8.