Introduction Apples are, quite simply, the preeminent fruit of temptation.
Their fragrant flowers lure us into the indolence of spring. The easy latticework of their sturdy limbs beckons us to climb high through twisted, curling branches. Their brash display of gold and crimson skins calls to us to stray and pluck them from the farmer’s field, entering into a silent feast of autumn theft.
Greeks, Romans, Persians, Vikings, and Celts: for all of them the apple was the consummate symbol of concupiscence, of love, and even of immortality. Yet the apple remains the most ordinary and practical of fruits. Durable, it can fit into and survive the jostling of any child’s knapsack. Hardy, it survives and flourishes in all but the most steamy or frigid climates. Flexible, its trees will bend and fit into almost any minimally fertile garden or field. Beguiling, it offers itself fresh as the symbol of childhood health and, distilled into Calvados, as a standard for the finest of brandies.
Apple orchards were, for most of the last millennium, everywhere. The Browning orchard, laid out along a ridgetop in eastern Kentucky, was one of four in our small county alone. Nearly every county with decent farmland had as many. Most of the old farmers kept at least a small personal orchard of a dozen trees just beyond the garden’s edge. (The Silva farm, just north of San Francisco Bay, held some forty hunchbacked old trees, but more of that in a moment.)
Apples came to me, Browning, both as work and as poetry. The earliest work for my brother and me was tidying up the dirt-floored sales shed on Sunday mornings before the after-church onslaught. Sundays have always been big sales days for apple growers, even though all the regular stores are closed. Stuffed with sermons, mashed potatoes, and chicken and still dressed up, the families wound their way up the one-lane road to Pea Ridge, through the oak and poplar woods and into the clearing that was our orchard. Sometimes dusty traffic jams blocked the driveway, as pickup trucks and Pontiacs tried to squeeze between the banks where the old climbing roses grew.
Most of the money we had to live on for the year spilt out of the frayed wallets of those Sunday afternoon apple buyers. Our job, my brother’s and mine, was to help the customers carry bushel bags of fruit out to the car and carefully stow them, four or five at a time, in the trunk.
The names of the apples—and we grew more than twenty different varieties—were as evocative as the dishes my mother concocted from them. Maiden Blush. Stayman Winesap. Winter Banana. King David. Rome Beauty. Black Twig. Transparent.
Could an apple be transparent? No matter. We waited like pigs at the trough for the tart, green applesauce—the first of the year, around Independence Day—that came from the stewing and sieving and chilling of those early Transparents. The Maiden Blush apples were as delicate as the name suggested, a fair blond fruit kissed by a patch of pink, which since Jefferson’s days at Monticello were favored as a drying apple. And those dark, ruby-skinned King Davids, their yellow flesh shot through with veins of crimson, quartered and roasted alongside a rolled pork roast, stood like a calendar marker of autumn’s arrival: they were small, modest apples, but hidden within was a flavor as rich and regal as any king might imagine. Winter Bananas? A giggle of a name. We had only a few trees and just as few customers who cared for the big, knobby, yellow November fruit.
Everybody, however, wanted Winesaps: the dark “old-fashioned” or “Virginia” Winesaps that never failed to make a crop (and were so small they never failed to drive the pickers mad) and the large, dusky pink Staymans that were the most popular of anything we grew. There, in dry, teetotaling eastern Kentucky, where real wine was seen as little better than the Devil’s vintage, the very sound of the word—Winesap—spun for me a wondrous image of epicurean indulgence that flourished somewhere beyond our spare life on the ridge.
Black Twigs, their thick, slightly bitter, scruffy skin enveloping a sweet-sour flesh, seemed like sterner fruit, good for a winter pocket but somehow linked to the threat of a hickory switch for errands left undone.
Rome Beauty? Well, they were the hearts of those crusty apple dumplings served on winter nights with hard sauce, and that was good enough. For our Christian neighbors (who called them Roman Beauties), I suppose they carried New Testament shadows. But I knew exactly what their name promised: future travels across the sea to the worn-out paths of ancient emperors. And each bite through the broken, buttery crust to the flesh within would carry me a moment closer to the imagined day of my own arrival in that eternal city beneath the Mediterranean sun.
All such daydreams aside, there were mostly the pedestrian chores of helping out in the orchard. Lacing poison along the grassy trails of field mice, which otherwise would burrow into the winter soil and chew away the roots of the trees. Thinning the over-set marble-sized fruits in early June so the apples that remained would grow large and pretty. And later, as we grew older, we were enlisted to pick the apples. (“Didn’t I tell you to be careful picking Goldens! Place them in the picking bag. Don’t drop them! They bruise!”) Longer, it seemed, than any other farmers’ crops, apple work began in February: pruning, followed by the first sprays of dormant oil and sulfur, followed by the anxieties of April bloom when rain could drive away the pollinating bees or frost could kill the fragile blossoms, only to end the following January when we’d sold the last Romes and Black Twigs, which, somehow, we had managed to save from freezing.
These were the tastes, traditions, and childhood fantasies of Browning’s eastern apples, the lore born of early American naturalists like Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson. The first Silva in America
knew nothing of Thoreau and Jefferson, and, in the beginning, knew nothing of apples either. In the early 1880s, my tough, bandy-legged grandfather left the poverty of the Azores, volcanic fragments of Portugal adrift in the Atlantic, for the promise of prosperity in California. He had been born on the fertile island of Faial amid pineapple, chestnut, and banana trees, but didn’t remember any Reinettes or Russets, Calville Blancs or Cox’s Orange Pippins. Nor was his new home, in southern Sonoma County, serious apple country, but his neighbors all had at least a few trees, and by the turn of the century, he did too.
Over the decades, our land shifted with the local economy, moving from sugar beets to truck farm to dairy cows to hay and grain. By the time I came along in the 1940s, those early apple trees were twisted with age. But they still produced a good crop, due mostly to friends with commercial orchards in the northwestern part of the county who came each year to prune and graft, ensuring a healthy flush of blossoms. Half a dozen trees stood around my grandparents’ house: a couple alternating with the prettier black walnuts along the driveway; two others, along with an apricot, shading the six-foot-high aviary that was home to a chorus of singing canaries and finches; and the last two joining a nearly equally ancient quince and fig between the house and the chicken yard. One more, the survivor of a fire in the 1920s that destroyed the original rosebush-covered family home, stared across at the well-worn redwood barn.
But the biggest stand of apple trees was a hundred yards or so from the small wood-frame house where my sister and I were raised, just down the lane from my grandparents’ place. About forty trees flourished there, protected on one side from rising winter floodwaters by a eucalyptus-lined levee and on the other by the gentle incline of the Sonoma foothills. My grandfather called them simply macãs—apples. Not Gravensteins. Not Jonathans. Not McIntoshes. And to this day their proper names are a mystery to me.
Just before the first sign of buds in the spring, when the branches were little more than scaffolds, a local beekeeper would install several pale gray wooden hives under the trees. I stayed out of the orchard then and looked forward to apple blossom honey. Once the fruit began to set, the hives were uprooted, swept free of their treasures, and set down in new quarters beneath the lanky eucalyptus.
My sister and I always raided the apple trees—in fact, all the fruit trees—early, before their fruits had ripened. The birds were formidable competitors, and we were determined to beat them. We would pluck the hard, homely fruits from the branches, immediately peel away their rugged skins with our pocketknives, and then happily eat them in place. We loved the crispness and sourness of a premature harvest, even though we sometimes paid for it with stomachaches and parental finger wagging. Once the apples had ripened, our mother would line up lugfuls of them along the cool side of the house and can quarts of applesauce and fry batches of sugar-dusted fritters for Sunday supper. Next door, our grandmother would spread the apples on the cold floor of her cellar and in the unused corner of the nearby creamery until she had the time to can, and then she would devote a whole day to topping off Mason jars with fragrant apple butter.
Late summer promised the arrival of the hay press crew, who took up temporary residence on cots on the first floor of the barn, and a funky mobile cook shack that harbored their traveling chef. A salty old fellow with curious tattoos, he baked the most handsome apple pies I have ever seen and left them to cool—and to tempt—on the drop-down shelf that stretched along one side of his compact kitchen. After lunch, when the workers returned to the fields, he would carve out a slice from a half-eaten pie and carefully balance it in my hands, a delicious wedge of sustenance to carry me through my afternoon chores.
My grandfather returned to the Azores only once, in the 1920s, sailing there with stories of the opportunity America offered. And although he still knew nothing of Jefferson or Thoreau, of Monticello or Walden Pond, he now did know something of macãs, a scrap of knowledge that gave him a small foothold in the lore of the American apple orchard.
A Brief History of the Fruit of Temptation
If apples are nearly everywhere in the New World and the Old, they are not all uniformly delicious. Of the six thousand or so identified varieties, only a few hundred are good enough to be swallowed. Most are little green knots, their scant sugars drowned in bitter acid. The native North American apples—four species of crabs stretching from Alaska to Cape Cod—are barely appealing to the birds. The apples we eat today are, like so much else, a gift of the Silk Route, that ancient trail of the caravans that transported so many delights of China, India, and Mongolia to the fledgling civilizations of the Mediterranean and eventually to the furry tribes of northern Europe. These apples, identified as Malus domestica by botanists, first arose on the slopes of the Tien Shan, or Heavenly Mountains, of modern Kazakhstan probably about ten thousand years ago.
The Persians seem to have been the first in recorded Western history to bring the apple both into the garden and onto the banquet table—apparently well before the ninth century b.c., if we are to judge from Homer’s description in the Odyssey. Their walled gardens, called pairidaeza, from which we eventually derived the word paradise, contained pears, grapes, nut trees, flowering shrubs, and apples. The horticultural riches so impressed the Greek armies that they borrowed the concept and made it their own. The pairidaeza became the household center for alfresco dining and entertaining, as important for its design as for the food it produced.
Persian cuisine, reflecting the Persian spiritual pursuit of harmony through the balance of opposing forces, revered apples for their own balance of sweetness and tartness, and that culinary tradition continues to this day. Apples have long been chopped or sliced and mixed with beef or lamb (page 96) to produce rich, complex main dishes, or the same meats, ground and seasoned, are stuffed inside hollowed-out apples (page 92) and roasted with a vinegar basting sauce. That marriage of apples and meat, which eventually included pork, moved westward to the Roman kitchens and came to permeate the territories of the empire as recorded in Marcus Gavius Apicius’s Ars magirica
: In a heavy pot, pour some oil and add garum [a briny flavoring produced by squeezing the liquid from salt-pickled mackerel], broth, chopped leek and coriander, and pieces of cinnamon bark. Chop small a leg of pork cooked with its skin. Simmer all together. Halfway through the cooking add Matian [a sweet Roman variety from which the Spanish word for apple,
manzana, is derived] apples cored and cut into pieces. While the stew is cooking, pound pepper, cumin, green coriander or coriander seeds, mint, and wild carrot root. To this mixture add a combination of vinegar, honey, garum, a little cooked wine [brandy], and meat juices from the pot, and work all together with a little vinegar. Bring it to the boil, then thicken with crumbled pastry, season with pepper, and serve.
The finest apples were reserved for the so-called second table that followed the rich courses in Persian and Greco-Roman banquets. Perhaps more than all the other fruits, apples were valued for their “digestive” properties. Early epicureans believed that the clean, fresh balance of sugar and acid brought a healthy conclusion to the evening, a tradition that even today distinguishes southern French and Italian desserts from the pies and cakes favored by northern Europeans and Anglo-Saxons. No less a figure than Plutarch, describing the Greek palate, wrote, “No other fruit unites the fine qualities of all the fruits as does the apple. For one thing, its skin is so clean when you touch it that instead of staining the hands it perfumes them. Its taste is sweet and it is extremely delightful both to smell and to look at. Thus by charming all our senses at once, it deserves the praise that it receives.”
As complex as the myths that swirled around them, apples also played a varied role among doctors and pharmacists, a role that shifted dramatically as the empire collapsed and the Dark Ages fell across Europe. Were it not for the Cistercian monasteries that preserved the horticultural art of grafting (through which all apple varieties are propagated), the sweet, delicious apples the Romans enjoyed would likely have disappeared as the Goths obliterated the great farming estates. What survived at large were seedling varieties, generally fermented as ciders. For the most part, they were bitter and inedible and therefore may have contributed to the widespread fear of eating fresh, uncooked apples that lasted late into the Renaissance. Sour apples, particularly those that ripen in summer, were generally believed to cause flux, or indigestion, and diarrhea. English monks were encouraged to consume ten raw apples a day during Lent to avoid constipation, while in the view of the Italian physician’s handbook, Regimen sanitatis
, sweet apples would stimulate the heart.
Excerpted from An Apple Harvest by Frank Browning and Sharon Silva. Copyright © 2010 by Frank Browning and Sharon Silva. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.