Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Apple Harvest

          as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch
                                       high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot--
no, not forgot: were unable to reach
             -- Sappho, translated by Anne Carson

A few weeks ago, several friends and I went tromping through the property adjacent to my house to pick apples. It's a large expanse of wild land-- a dried-up creek bed, stands of redwood trees, blackberry brambles. Weeds and hay, overgrown dandelions, oak trees, the occasional patch of poison oak . . . and the remains of an apple orchard. Since I moved here we've found three trees with plentiful fruit. I suspect there are more we haven't discovered yet, but before we'd even made a dent on tree #3 we already had as many apples as we could carry.

We gossiped and chatted, and because we are literary scholars and sensible to the charms of the season, we recited poetry as we picked.

And yet in the midst of my grief…I send you
   these verses…
lest perhaps you think your request had slipped my mind,
   entrusted to the wandering winds,
like an apple sent as a lover's secret gift:
   it falls out of a chaste girl's lap
(the poor girl forgot she hid it in her soft gown)
   and drops to the floor as she jumps at her mother's entrance--
it tumbles to the ground
   while a guilty blush stains her tearful face.
          -- Catullus

Classical poetry in the fruitful shade: a pastoral idyll.

There's a family of deer living back in the woods, too. We saw a couple but they ran off as soon as we got close. We left a lot of fallen apples in our wake, so they'll have a feast. We also found deer bones, already bleached white; they weren't there last fall. There was an almost complete skeleton of a fawn; you could see its tiny, tiny hooves.

intrepid applepickers

Laden with the spoils of the trees, we lounged in the backyard and drank cocktails, as one is wont to do when faced with the start of the school term, the turning of cold weather, and one's own mortality in the form of a fawn's toothy jawbone. The party doubled in size.  Laborers went home with backpacks full to bursting, and even latecomers took some apples home. And yet the next morning, I still had this quantity to deal with:

I don't have a scale, but I guessed it was about 40 lb of apples.

I separated the whole, perfect fruit -- which will keep in the fridge for months -- from the apples with broken skin, worm holes, and other blemishes. About half and half. I then cleaned the damaged fruit meticulously:

and peeled, cored, and chopped it all for applesauce, a process that took over three hours (and that was before I even started cooking)!

Applesauce and apple pie were among the first things I remember learning to cook as a child. I've tried countless recipes over the years, and my current favorite applesauce is inspired by a centuries-old cookbook, the Livre fort excellent de Cuysine (Lyons, 1542).

It offers the following recipe for apple tarts:

Red tarts.
To make red apple tarts, peel your apples and soak them in red wine & sugar & ground cinnamon with a little fresh butter and pass it all through a sieve and make your tarts.

The combination of red wine and apples is seductively grown-up; the apples benefit from a little acidity, and they turn the most gorgeous color, anywhere from deep rose to burgundy, depending on how much wine you use.  For this many apples I used one bottle of wine (that's all I had on hand; that quantity could have taken up to two bottles). A little sugar and cinnamon (I don't like my applesauce too sweet), but I skipped the butter; cooked the apples down until they were very soft, and then instead of sieving it, used an immersion blender to puree the mixture.

I canned ten pints of applesauce.  It is delicious to eat on its own, and can also go straight into a pie crust for "red tarts."

The possibilities for apples in desserts and pastries are, of course, virtually endless, and the apples are delicious to eat on their own. But in the last couple years I've started to look for ways to incorporate my bountiful harvest into savory dishes, too.  One of my favorites is a Normandy-inspired braise of chicken legs and and apples in hard cider, finished with cream (a take on this recipe).  Two more favorites come from yet another early modern francophone source, the Ouverture de Cuisine of Lancelot de Casteau (Liège, 1604).

I picked this up years and years ago in a used bookstore in my old neighborhood in Berkeley. It's a facsimile of the original printed edition, and the first piece in my growing collection of historical cookery texts.

Hungarian-style capon pottage.
Take a par-cooked capon, cut it in quarters, and fry it in butter just a little, so that it does not blacken; then take onions cut in slices, and apples cut in little quarters, and fry them in the butter, and pour them over the capon in a pot; then put in some broth and some wine, and let it boil some more, and put in saffron, sugar, nutmeg, and pine nuts, and stew it well so that it is well cooked, and serve it.

This "pottage" comes out like a thick stew, though you can add more broth if you want it more soup-like. Capon, though delicious, is pretty hard to come by, so I make this with chicken (and chicken broth and white wine).  I also often substitute olive oil for some or all of the butter, and I like to toast the pine nuts for a little extra flavor and texture.  I add them to the stew only right before serving, and save a few for garnish. It is delicious served over rice.

Sausages in pottage.
Take the sausages, and fry them in butter, then take five or six apples peeled and cut in little quarters, and four or five onions cut in round slices, and fry them in butter, and put all of it in a pot with the sausages, and put in nutmeg, cinnamon, white or red wine, sugar, and stew it all together in this way.

Although M Casteau lived an age before mashed potatoes found their way to the European table, he would no doubt have found, given the opportunity to try it, that purée de pommes de terre goes splendidly with this sausage-and-apple stew. A few days ago I needed a potluck dish for a party. I immediately thought of this satisfying stew, then realized that my contribution needed to be finger-food. So I converted it into a pie. I took the sausages out of their casings (these were boar sausages from a hunter friend -- delicious!) and browned the sausage meat, then removed it and sauteed minced onions and diced apples. I added the sausages back to the pan along with the red wine and spices, and cooked until the apples were slightly softened (but not falling apart), and let it cool while I whipped up some whole wheat pâte brisée (tart dough). I used a mini-muffin tin to form bite-sized pies. But I forgot to take a picture before they all got eaten up!