'The season of mist and mellow fruitfulness' may well be beckoning but the apples 'bending the moss'd cottage-trees' in Keats' celebration of autumn are sadly absent in many gardens and orchards across the UK. The 'swelling' and the 'plumping' all too often happens in New Zealand, China (the world's biggest apple producer). South Africa, the USA. Uniform shiny balls fit to hang on a Christmas tree like cheap plastic baubles, grown for storage and disease-resistance at the expense of taste.
As the voice of Radio 4's food programme, Sheila Dillon recently tweeted: English apples-- biggest crop for years. Any sign in Sainsbury's Exp in B'ham? All NZ & SA. M & S @ Euston? One-- boring Braeburn. Shameful. Food blogger and writer Oliver Thring added to the apple lament: Morrisons near UK orchards sells apples from China. Do you buy any foods because they're British?
A shining ray of light in the darkening season of fruitfulness however, appeared in the shape of John Harris at Tresillian House, near Newquay. Famed across Cornwall and beyond as a gardening guru, he works with the gravitational pull of the moon, which, he says, affects water levels and therefore growing. The walled garden at Tresillian is thought to be one of the finest in the country and as we chat in the potting shed, rain blurring the vista across the garden, he hauls down a couple of coats for us and we make our way to the orchard, where he has 80 varieties of apples. Crab apples glow red on a tree next to us, brown and spiked medlars sit pert on nearby branches, but apparently there'll be no quinces this year.
Returning with buckets full of fat, bulbous apples, rhubarb and the last of the Bodmin plums, the plastic wrapped shiny baubles of the supermarket shelves are thankfully a distant food nightmare. With robust windfalls, one of my all-time favourite desserts is the simplicity of a baked apple, stuffed with sweet things and covered in custard, placing the apple, rightfully, centre stage. If you are lucky enough to have a glut, apple sauce frozen in batches makes a great accompaniment to roasts pork duck, yoghurt and custard throughout the winter. Simply peel, core and chop apples into a saucepan, add a little water and cook to a pulp. Sweeten to taste, add a knob of butter and freeze when cold.
Beautiful baked apples
Turn the oven to 160°C. Core, and wash 6-8 apples (double up on what you need so you have some for the next day too, with cold custard hmm). Stuff the apples with either sultanas, raisins or dates or a blend of any of these. Leave enough space at the top to put in a teaspoonful of honey, syrup or brown sugar. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes, they will collapse a little when cooling, like the best croquembouche, but will taste delicious. The health benefits? Sugars, fibre, vitamin C, potassium and Guercetin, a flavonoid thought to protect against heart disease. The feel-good factor? The unbeatable taste of an English orchard native, plucked from the boughs of a Keatsian 'moss'd cottage-tree.'