Edible histories: apples

Categories: History of food

From the mountains of Kazakhstan to a Nottinghamshire garden, via centuries of rich symbolism and silly names, Mark Riddaway on the history of the apple

In the Book of Genesis, the forbidden fruit consumed by Eve was just that: a fruit. No further light was cast upon its type. But while Jewish tradition has tended towards the grape, fig or citron, in Europe the catalyst for the fall of man has been almost universally depicted as an apple—a fact that reveals much about the status of this most widely dispersed and consistently prosperous of fruits.

No genus is more prevalent in legend: the golden apples of Hercules; the Apple of Discord, which sparked the Trojan wars; the youth-giving apples of the Norse goddess Idun; those shot from innocent heads by Palnatoki, Adam Bell and William Tell; the poisoned fruits of Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur and the Grimm brothers’ Snow White. It is an enduring icon of sex, sin, fertility and beauty. Neither the kumquat nor the quince comes loaded with quite the same symbolic punch.

This widespread fascination with apples is rooted in the beauty of the fruits, their staggering diversity, and their ability to span the world, thriving anywhere with cold winters and sunny summers. Oh, and the fact that if you slice horizontally through the core, the result is somewhat erogenous.

The apple’s story begins on the verdant slopes of the Tian Shan mountains in Kazakhstan. It was here, in 1929, that Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, the brilliant Soviet plant geneticist, claimed to have uncovered the birthplace of the domesticated apple, Malus domestica. He wrote: “We are in the centre of origin of the cultivated apple … Some of the wild ecotypes in these forests were so superior in quality and size that they could be taken directly from an orchard to market without anyone knowing the difference.” Vavilov was right. The wild apple of the Tian Shan, a species known as Malus sieversii, has been shown through DNA analysis to be the principal ancestor of the many thousands of varieties consumed today.

Kazakh beauties
Other wild species, including the Malus sylvestris, known on these shores as the crab apple, still grow abundantly, but while some of their DNA has inveigled itself into the apple gene pool, they are generally too small and tart to be of much use—Pliny the Elder wrote of the crab apple being of such sourness “it will even take the edge off a knife”. Those Kazakh beauties, though, were big and sweet enough for their dissemination to be rewarded, aided by the Tian Shan’s location, close to the trade and migration routes that join Europe and Asia.

Domesticated apples were being grown in the ancient Near East. The Law Codes of the Hittites (c.1650-1500BC) fixed the fine for anyone whose brush fire accidentally set light to an apple orchard at six shekels per tree, while a tablet from the Assyrian city of Nuzi made reference to a man selling his orchard in exchange for three sheep. The ancient Persians, too, were experts in the cultivation of fruit, and it was most likely from Persia that apples made their way to Greece.

This migration was one of knowledge as well as apples. One of the reasons for the success of the apple tree is its genetic variability, known as ‘extreme heterozygosity’. Plant all the seeds from a single apple and every tree that results can be wildly different, meaning that even the finest apple might produce progeny that are inedibly foul. An incredible new variety might emerge, but ensuring its survival beyond the lifetime of a single tree requires skilled intervention—namely grafting: the fusing of shoots, buds or branches from one tree into the trunk of another.

This technique is clearly very ancient. On the Nature of the Child, written in Greece in around 420BC by one of the followers of Hippocrates, mentions grafting, as does Theophrastus, in his Historia Plantarum (c.350-287BC). Plutarch, in the 1st century AD, wrote an enjoyable description of some inter-species examples of the art, which he said raised “classes and specimens more marvellous than the sphinxes and chimaeras of the poets”.

Star of the show
By the time Pliny wrote Naturalis Historia (77-79AD), apple cultivation was so well developed that Romans could choose from a long list of varieties, known either for their origins—the amerina (from Amelia in Umbria), the ‘syricum’ (Syrian), the ‘graecula’ (little Greek)—or their defining characteristics—the seedless ‘spadonium’ (impotent), the swollen ‘pulmoneum’ (lung-shaped), the fast-fading ‘pannuceum’ (shrivelled) and the schoolboy’s favourite ‘orthomastium’ (pert-breasted). Wealthy Romans were enthusiastic consumers of fruit, which arrived with great display at the end of a meal; the apple, with its shiny skin and spherical form was one of the stars of the show.

It was a Roman who first described one of the apple’s greatest qualities: the facility of some varieties to be stored for months after harvest. In De Re Rustica, Pliny’s contemporary Columella listed several types that would thrive if stored in a cold loft, packed in “small chests of beech, or of lime tree also, such as senators or judges’ robes are laid up in”.

Crab apples had considerable cultural significance in Celtic Britain, but it was the Romans who introduced the Malus domestica to these shores, just as they did to France and north-west Spain, and the tools they used for pruning and grafting have been uncovered at many Romano-British sites. When the Romans left, though, fruit cultivation slowly faded.

Across the continent, the art of horticulture was kept alive by monks, for whom its synthesis of learning and labour was considered a virtuous one, and by the Moorish conquerors of Spain and Sicily, the Islamic world having long maintained an advanced understanding of gardens and orchards. As the monastic orders expanded rapidly in the 12th century, fruit growing experienced a renaissance.

Enticing varieties
Medieval France led the way in identifying and propagating the most enticing varieties of apple, including the rouviau, the blandurel, the paradise and the costard. After cuttings were brought across the Channel and grafted into English orchards, the costard would become England’s most popular and widely grown apple, lending its name to the generic word for a fruitseller that would endure until deep into the 20th century: costermonger.

John Lydgate’s Henry VI’s Triumphal Entry into London (1432) described trees “fulle of fruytes lade, / Of colour hevynly”. Among the exotic fruits, alongside “orenges, almondis, and the pomegernade”, he included two rare French apples—“pypyns” and “blaunderell”—but among the “fruytes which more comune be”, he listed “quenynges”, “costardes”, “pomewater” and “ricardouns”, the latter three of which were also French but had migrated to England.

The first named variety of apple to emerge on these shores was the pearmain. The earliest reference dates from 1290, when the petty serjeanty of Runham in Norfolk accepted as rent a payment of 200 pearmains and four hogsheads of pearmain cider—a definitively East Anglian transaction.

Beyond the monasteries and manor houses, most of the apples consumed here were semi-wild. The medieval open field system, which divided farmland into small strips from which individual peasants were expected to extract almost all their sustenance, rendered the cultivation of slow-maturing fruit trees impractical. Instead, apples were gathered from trees that grew on the forested perimeter of the estate.

Mother of all orchards
It wasn’t until the Tudor period that commercial apple orchards and market gardens began to be established. Richard Harris, Henry VIII’s fruiterer, set up a royal fruit collection at Teynham, east Kent, in 1533. According to a 1609 pamphlet, Harris “fetched out of Fraunce a great store of graftes, especially pippins, before which time there were no pippins in England” and Harris’s collection became “the chiefe mother of all other orchards”. The expansion of fruit-growing was accelerated by the arrival in England of green-fingered protestant refugees from France and Flanders, many of whom settled in Kent and Surrey.

As orchards rapidly multiplied, so too did the number of English varieties. John Parkinson wrote in his Paradisi in Sole (1629) that the varieties of apple are “infinite almost”, of “divers formes, colours and tastes”. He proceeded to rate more than 50 different types known to him or his friends, while also dismissively mentioning “twenty sorts of sweetings, and none good”. His list included the bastard queene (like the queene apple, but less tasty), the leathercoate (a small, sharp, winter fruit), the cat’s head (“took the name of the likeness”), the cowsnout (as bad as it sounds), the old wife (better than it sounds), and the woman’s breast (a pleasing echo of Pliny).

The best sorts, wrote Parkinson, are good “at the last course for the table, in most men’s houses of account”. This fashion for presenting apples at the end of a meal alongside other sweet treats is the reason why apples eaten straight from the hand are known as dessert apples. The sample dessert menus appended to Hannah Glasse’s The Compleat Confectioner included bowls of Golden Pippins and Nonpareils, two of 18th century England’s most popular eating varieties.  

The idea that an apple might be enjoyed raw was relatively new. For centuries, they had been considered dangerous. Excessive consumption can lead to an upset stomach, which mirrored the ‘fluxes’ associated with deadly fevers. Throw in the mythos of sin and temptation, and the fact that most medieval apples were intensely sharp, and it’s easy to see why munching one straight from the branch would be avoided.

Mushes and stews
England being England, their most common use had been in the manufacture of cider. Otherwise they tended to be cooked. In the poem Piers Plowman (c.1370-90), a list of simple foods with which the poor would placate the looming presence of Hunger included “baken apples”. Appulmoy—an apple sauce with almond milk and spices—was enjoyed by the rich, while similar sauces, without the exotic additions, were used to flavour common mushes and stews. ‘Coddled’ apples were often cooked in bakers’ ovens after the bread had been baked.

The apple pie, now a symbol of America, is as English as, well, just about every other kind of pie. The Forme of Cury (c.1390) contained a recipe in which apples are baked in a “cofyn” with spices, figs, raisins, pears and saffron, while a similar recipe from around 1425 included the rather questionable addition of ground-up “samon, or codlynge, or hadok”.

Driven by the increasing availability of sugar to soften the edges, this British love of cooked apples would endure even as dessert apples became more widely available. Around 1857, Henry Merryweather, a young apple enthusiast, took a cutting from a tree that grew behind a modest cottage in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, occupied by a butcher called Matthew Bramley.

The resulting fruit, bramley’s seedling, won a prestigious certificate at the 1883 National Apple Congress, caught the attention of commercial growers and came to dominate the booming marketplace for cooking apples. The cox’s orange pippin, grown from a seed planted by Richard Cox, a retired brewer in Slough, was named the south’s best dessert apple at the same congress, and was being grown by Kent farmers by the 1890s.

British pomologists
The 1883 congress was part of a sustained effort by British pomologists (and that is a real word) to record, categorise and promote the vast wealth of apple varieties that were being generated around the country. Despite being by this stage a truly global fruit, nowhere else could boast such a pantheon of apples.

Sadly, the very diversity and creativity that made British apple culture so rich would be the source of its decline. Elsewhere efforts were being made to develop and export a small number of highly consistent but slightly humdrum varieties—granny smith (from Australia), gala, braeburn (both from New Zealand), golden delicious (from the USA, then France)—which fit perfectly with the scale and homogeneity demanded by the supermarket system.

The UK now imports three-quarters of its apples, and many of its native varieties have all but vanished. Borough Market remains a good source for many of these. Look out for some unusual names—but whatever you do, avoid the wretched cowsnout.