Apples have always been part of human history.
“The apple-tree has been celebrated by the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and Scandinavians. Some have thought that the first human pair were tempted by its fruit. Goddesses are fabled to have contended for it, dragons were set to watch it, and heroes were employed to pluck it.” So writes Henry David Thoreau in “Wild Apples” (The Atlantic Monthly, November 1862).
In mid-October, after harvesting fruit, comes pie-making and bottling. In pre-supermarket days, parents got used to preserving autumn’s abundance against the austerity of winter. It involved stickiness: syrup would inevitably boil over and an odour of burnt caramel waft around the house. Hot jars of fruit would require sealing and labelling with strange names like Nittany, Nonpareil, and Newton Wonder.
In The Book of Household Management, Comprising Information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and under house-maids, Lady’s-maid, Maid-of-all-work, Laundry-maid, Nurse and nurse-maid, Monthly, wet, and sick nurses, etc. etc. also, sanitary, medical, & legal memoranda; with a history of the origin, properties, and uses of all things connected with home life and comfort (1861), Mrs. Isabella Beeton praises apples:
“No fruit is so universally popular as the apple. It is grown extensively for cider, but many sorts are cultivated for the table. The apple, uncooked, is less digestible than the pear; the degree of digestibility varying according to the firmness of its texture and flavour. Very wholesome and delicious jellies, marmalades, and sweetmeats are prepared from it. Entremets of apples are made in great variety. Apples, when peeled, cored, and well cooked, are a most grateful food for the dyspeptic.”
The “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” is a time for home-made pies – gooseberry rhubarb and, of course, apple – using jealously guarded recipes. In her book, Mrs. Beeton explains that in the process of cooking the apple’s natural malic acid is “decomposed and converted into sugar”, and that “many things are suggested for the flavouring of apple pie; some say 2 or 3 tablespoonfuls of beer, others the same quantity of sherry, which very much improve the taste; whilst the old-fashioned addition of a few cloves is, by many persons, preferred to anything else, as also a few slices of quince.”
Mrs. Beeton embodies the much maligned English tradition of good home cooking. Jamie Oliver created his repertoire of dishes using her principles and Nigel Slater, brilliant in his own way, invents food that is essentially homely. And what could be more comforting than homemade apple pie?
This makes it all the more surprising that in some places apple pie making has been grossly over-industrialised. There is a place in Ontario, Canada, that churns them out daily for hordes of visitors. What has been lost sight of is the care and attention that Mrs Beeton would have lavished on the final product.
It takes time to select the right fruit (ideally a combination of at least two kinds of apple, one sharper than the other), to prepare the right kind of pastry (buttery – none of that shortening or lard stuff), to coerce all the ingredients into shape and bake them at just the right temperature. And that is why the pie that emerges, to be served with fresh cream or perhaps a delicate vanilla custard, bears no comparison to its mass produced cousin.
As the Australian writer Janet Clarkson notes in Pie: A Global History (2009), “The homemade pie has been under siege for a century, and surely its survival is endangered.” A homemade apple pie is a thing of beauty and maybe if there were more baking and eating and sharing of apple pies, the world would actually be a better place.