The frosty morning mists of early autumn roll through the hills, swirling like a white cotton-candy carpet at the base of the gnarly old trees. Branches creak and sway with the weight of the fist-sized apples, some blushing like tiny faces, or red-cheeked as it were from the chill of the windy gusts.
So much a part of European culture and cuisine, apples seem to be a native food, an ingredient in so many traditional dishes. But the apples we love came into existence far from the pommiers of Normandy, the orchards of East Sussex.
Apples of the Malus species – a relative of the rose family (Rosacae) appear to have originated in Asia; archaeologists pinpoint their origin to forests in the Tien Shan mountains, in the area known today as Kazakhstan. The name of the city of Almaty there means “Father of Apples.” As with many food products, apples most likely made their way by caravan to the ports of the Mediterranean via various routes that comprised theSilk Road.
Authorities generally agree that the Romans later introduced apple-growing technologies, including grafting, into France and central Europe. Monasteries and convents later supported vast apple orchards, making the fruit more available to more people than just the wealthy class.
Apples still grow in copious quantities throughout France today, but it is in Normandy that they rooted most firmly, possibly because grapes do not do well there and the fermented cider produced from the small somewhat sour apples offered people something highly desired – a beverage that eased the pain of living and a safe substitute for brackish, often unsafe drinking water. The fruit lent itself to a variety of culinary preparations and could be preserved “fresh” for a few months after harvest if tended to carefully and stored under cool conditions. Downed apples could be used for cider production and for feeding pigs. The wood of dead trees served for firewood or for carving kitchen utensils like bowls and spoons.
So it’s not hard to understand why the Celts revered the apple tree so, deeming it one of their sacred trees. It seems to me that’s it’s not at all odd that apples became crucially important in Britain, too, particularly after the apple-loving Normans conquered England in 1066 AD. Growers in France still harvest hardy “reinettes,” an apple that propagates by grafting, as Alan Davidson says, because the name contains the original sense of grafting (Latin “renatus,” meaning “reborn” = re + natus). Another old French apple, the Calville blanche d’hiver, ripens in January and February, a late-season fruit.
On average, apples supply anywhere from 70 – 85 calories each, not an overly caloric-dense food, but enough so to make a difference in times of food shortages. Without much fresh fare, people succumbed to the problems of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. And that is why apples were so important in the European diet. They supplied a hefty amount of vitamin C, crucial for the prevention of scurvy during long winter months ofEurope. (Fermented cabbage – sauerkraut – also provided vitamin C.)
One of the earliest and modern written recipes for apples may be “French” in origin. Compare the recipe from Tractatus de modo preparandi et condiendi omnia cibaria with Apicius’s fourth/fifth-century gravy recipe using apple cider, which follows. The modern combination of apples with fatty pork, as with the French way with apples and sausages, reflects ancient cooking methods. Le Menagier de Paris (1393) provided his wife with a number of apple recipes, as did La Varenne in his three cookery books published between 1651 and 1660: The French Cook, The French Pastry Chef, and The French Confectioner.
Tractatus de modo preparandi et condiendi omnia cibaria (Marianne Mulon version from 1971, 14th C. recipe)*:
16. — Pone poma minutim incisa in brodio carnium et aliquantulum bulliri permite; et cum depilando pila; et, si uis, puluerem specierum et crocum et aliquantulum farine ad inspissandum, et adde pinguedinem qualem uis, uel butirum.
Put thinly sliced apples in meat broth and let it boil for a while, and then slip off the peel. And if desired, pound with spices and saffron and some flour for frying, adding fat of your choice or some butter. (Translation by C. Bertelsen)
Amulatum aliter: piper teres pridie infusum, cui subinde liquamen suffundes ita ut bene tritum ac lutulentum facias piperatum. cui defritum admisces, quod fit de cotoniis, quod soletorrentein mellis substantiam cogitur. quod si non fuerit, vel Caricarum defritum mittes, quod Romani ‘colorem’ vocant. ac deinceps amulum infusum adicies vel oryzae sucum et lento igni fervere facias.
55 Another Thick Entrée Gravy
Grind pepper which has been soaked overnight, add some more stock and work it into a smooth paste; thereupon add quince-apple cider, boiled down one half, that is which has evaporated in the heat of the sun to the consistency of honey. If this is not at hand, add fig wine1 concentrate which the Romans call “color”.2 Now thicken the gravy with roux or with soaked rice flour and finish it on a gentle fire.
The Vivendier from the fifteenth century provides a recipe for apple sauce, more like custard because of the eggs and cream – it is interesting, isn’t it that we still flavor our apple pies and applesauce with cinnamon?
Pour faire un amplummus: prenez pommes pelleez et copez par morceaulx, puis mis boullir en belle esve fresce; et quant il sont bien cuis, purez l’esve hors nettement, puis les suffrisiez en beau bure fres; ayez cresme douce et moyeulx d’oels bien batus, saffron et sel egalment; et au dreschier canelle et chucquere largement pardessus.
To make an applesauce: Take peeled apples, and cut them into pieces, then put them to the boil in fresh clean water; and when they are well cooked, drain off the water and sauté them in good fresh butter; take sweet cream and beaten egg yolks, saffron and salt the same amount; sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar to serve. (Translation C. Bertelsen)
References and Further Reading:
Bakels, Corrie and Jacomet, Stefanie. Access to luxury foods in Central Europeduring the Roman period: the archaeobotanical evidence. World Archaeology 34(3): 542-55, 2003.
Dani, Ahmad H. Significance of Silk Road to human civilization: Its cultural dimension. Journal of Asian Civilizations 25(1): 72-79, 2002.
Harris, Stephan, Juniper, Barrie, and Robinson, Julien P. Genetic Clues to the Origin of Apples.Trends in Genetics 18(8): 426 – 430, 2002.
Martin, Lucie, Jacomet, Stefanie, and Thiebault, Stéphanie. Plant economy during the Neolithic in a mountain context: the case of “Le Chenet des Pierres” in the French Alps (Bozel-Savoie, France) Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, Volume 17, Supplement 1, 113-122, 2008.
*Marianne Mulon: Deux traités inédits d’art culinaire médiéval. In: Bulletin philologique et historique (jusqu’à 1610) du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques. Année 1968: Actes du 93e Congrès national des Sociétés savantes tenu à Tours. Volume 1: Les problèmes de l’alimentation.Paris1971, 369-435. (Tractatus: p. 380-395.)
© 2011 C. Bertelsen