Sunday, January 04, 2009

A is for Apple

A is for Apple. B is for Burgle. C is for Chomp. And D – consequently – is for Do a Runner. I recently visited an English Stately Home and I acquired a small souvenir. Englishness and stateliness tend to make my fingers itch . . . and so, ever so rarely, I am the agent of just a little misappropriation.

It was a long-legged sort of Sunday afternoon, and B and I drifted into a plan to take the kind of walk that has a grand old house at the end of it. Poking around the houses of people richer than yourself is a pastime beloved by the English; we are a persistently evaluative people, and we have a peculiar attachment to being hushed, to hushing others, to peering at while being peered upon. We pay good money to make Sunday visits to the houses that most of us, in another age, would have spent our lives working in and around.

In another time, serving the warp and weft of wealth upholstered the conviction that the steward can be as sovereign (in his own way) as the lord of the manor. We tell lots of stories in which the butler or the valet not only waits on but quietly compensates for the failings of his boorish betters, and these stories seed the English belief that service is the best way of knowing (and thereby upholding) refinement. It was the draper who really understood quality cloth, a housekeeper was more au fait than anyone with good china and the chambermaid most intimately knew the literal underpinnings of the better classes. These workers were granted their own domains; and they believed they had a kind of dustcloth ownership that lightly overlay the real tenacities of English property rights. The cook of long-standing, born on the estate, raised up through its servile ranks, may have been said to rule the roost, and be deferred to; she even recreated the hierarchies of upstairs in her downstairs world. Now her descendants, myself included, enjoy a little snoop around the old architectures of a class-system that haunts us, with that particular combination of thrill and horror that constitutes all desires, good and bad, including hunger.

Although few cooks or gardeners or maids serve estates these days, the roots of that culture still entangle the soil, and its hoary old stumps are putting up new shoots. New shoots that make my fingers itch. In England, His Majesty, the monarch-in-waiting, will famously neither smile on modern architects, nor eat asparagus out of season. The excellencies of smallholding are lucratively championed by a mop-haired toff with the kind of double-barreled surname derived not from experiments in gender equity, but from age-old practices of estate preservation. The “domestic goddess” who sheds her grace upon all Yummy Mummies is the daughter of the Tory who held the purse strings under Margaret Thatcher. Though the Iron Lady herself is not really a lady but an eagle-eyed server - a grocer’s daughter. At some point during the 11 bleak years of her reign, I heard a radio interview with a woman who had grown up alongside Thatcher in Grantham, and because I only truly understand anything when it is described culinarily, the story has stayed with me as the most succinct explanation of Thatcher’s particular Will to Power. Back in the day, the interviewee’s mother would send her round to the Thatcher grocery. “Make sure the other sister serves you,” her mother would warn as the child set off with the string bag, “Margaret always keeps one finger on the scales.”

This is the long and knavish way around the short and brutish fact that I stole an apple. B and I had tramped across London to visit a gracious house, one that was built in the country, but now finds itself in the city. The magma of new growth encroaches on its space, held back only by some sturdy railings and the even sturdier intent of several elderly volunteer ladies sporting sprigged outfits and accents to match. B and I slipped into the seeming requisite of restrained, intentional gestures and we padded through the house progressively more dazed by room after room of glassed-in hoards of porcelain miniatures, then were startled from our torpor by other rooms peopled with life–sized muslin-faced manikins dressed as Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Finally the house gently excreted us into the garden. It was walled, its high brick walls host to much green clambering, thick wisteria trunks like bandy avuncular legs supporting a tumbling scramble of nieces and nephews. The garden had elevated walkways, lined with lavender bushes, roses turned to hips, and deep, dark green banks of leaves sexy with the promise of peonies in the summer. This formal space raised and lowered you, depositing you at benches with views and suggested a circuit through its loveliness. In one of its walls was a small doorframe and if you ducked through it, another vegetal plane opened out before you. This was the kitchen garden, and the working garden, too. It held the mulch piles, the greenhouses and the potting areas. Its vegetable beds were perfect operas of bulb and foliage: full-chested leeks with cavalier greenery, tremulous forests of dill, unearthed onions looking indolent and faintly lewd, carrots poking up just enough to see what was going on, and then signs of tragic decline all around – asparagus beds gone to full late-season battiness, the overlooked courgettes turning to bloated, basso marrows. It was a glory.

But beyond this again was the true temptation. Yet another little door opened into a small music-box of an orchard. Just about a dozen apple trees, of a dozen or so varieties, all agreeably short and all ornamented with fruit. Each one was carefully labeled with varietal and the date that the apples would be ripe for picking, and each and every one had its own stern sign that said “DO NOT PICK THE FRUIT.” The torture! I lost myself walking between them, heavy boughs nudging their pendant crop against my shoulders. Wandering in a sun and apple-spangled daze, I bumped into B salivating under an “early picking Discovery.” Its hundred happy red apples were clearly perfect that day, that very moment, that second and that second alone they were at their best. It was TIME. We discussed the exact wording of the signs – what would constitute “picking,” exactly? If we clasped our hands behind our backs and simply bobbed for the apples, could we - in all fairness - be stopped? If one of us stumbled against the tree, and the other was lying underneath that tree with her mouth – at that moment – happening to be wide open, would any Newtonian consequences be held against us?

Such pussy footing around the problem was all very pleasurable, but no substitute for the real thing. So I plucked an apple, popped it into my bag and quickly led B away from stateliness and the no-doubt swift-footed justice of the volunteer ladies. Out of the orchard, through the walled graciousness, emerging onto the street through a tradesman’s entrance, we trotted down the hill to the wail of London traffic.

There is a definite relation between the apple specifically and such theft. There is a kind of obviousness to it, and even a name for it: scrumping. You can probably scrump all kinds of fruit and veg, but scrump is a West Country name for a small or scrubby apple and “scrumpy” is the name given to cider pressed from foraged apples. The apple is portable enough to be downfall and salvation too. There is always Eve, bless her, and then John Clare remembered the redeeming virtues of the fruit when he recalled the Golden Russet that grew in his father’s garden: “the tree is an old favourite with my father and stood his friend many a year in the days of adversity by producing an abundance of fruit which always met with ready sale and paid his rent.” But what if the apple in question grows in someone else’s walled garden? What if it is not for sale or rent but simply comes to hand? . . . well, as Clare said:

All sighed when lawless law's enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes.

My petty theft made no dent to law and its enclosures. I am not a bona fide poacher nor a leveler, sad to say. Nevertheless, I was set on honouring the pilfered apple. I have always been wary of recipes that ask you to actually heat apples, feeling that a fresh apple is the most perfectly hand-ready fruit, best when shockingly crisp.
Why do anything at all to it? A friend and I recently confessed our mutual contempt for the baked apple as a form, and the way it renders the handsome sphere to a secret and miserable mush within its own jacket. And as for the habit of hurling huge quantities of cinnamon at any apple that moves – I throw my hands up in horror. I have many exceptions to my own rule: tarts, charlottes and dutch apple pies. In fact, I admit (with the exception of the cinnamon bit) it’s no rule at all. But still, when you’ve slyly pocketed an apple at its peak, contravened the pleas of its mindful gardeners, misbehaved in a “lawful orchard” – that’s the time to institute your own edict, lay it down as law inviolable, and defend it vigorously. This apple would not be cooked. It would instead be met by its equal – a mature and friable cheddar. A cheese like this might be subject to the same kind of law that I apply to the apple: best left unmolested, its musty, woody tang the perfect complement to the apple’s bright snap. But contrarily I was in the mood for something baked, something flaky, something that left a buttery, guilty residue on my fingertips.

I wanted something like a cheese straw, only more robust and less pointy. Something with simple ingredients, but an able foil to the fruit. When you cut an apple the wrong way, along its equator, it reveals five carpels arranged in a five-point star, each containing a few mahogany pips. It’s a queer sort of compass, and one I thought I could carry over into my pastry by using nigella – the onion seed, not the goddess. I folded these angular black kernels into my rich pastry, then rolled it thinly and cut it into leaves, as a vague and stylised reuniting, a return of the apple to the tree.

Makes about 18

100g very cold, unsalted butter, cut into chunks
100g plain flour
A hefty pinch of salt
1⁄2 tsp mustard powder
50g mature cheddar, coarsely grated
50g Parmesan cheese, finely grated
1-2 tablespoons of black onion seeds
1 egg yolk, beaten

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Place the butter and flour in the bowl of a food processor, together with the salt, mustard, the two cheeses and the egg yolk. Pulse in short spurts. Once the texture is clumpy, tip it all out on to some plastic wrap and knead it through the plastic (to prevent melting the fats) until blended and smooth. With the plastic wrap holding it all together, roll into a log. Then shape the log into a teardrop about 4-5cm diameter and press the ends flat. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes – you could leave it overnight.

When you are ready to bake them, grease a baking sheet, or line with a Silpat. Dip a sharp knife into a mug of hot water and slice thin biscuits from the log. Place on a baking tray about 2cm apart and use a knife to score veins into each leaf. Bake for 10 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Lift off the tray using a pallet knife and cool on a rack.

Free Counter