A is for Apple
“Gosh,” I hear you say. “An apple ! That’s…er…interesting…”
And you’d be right. Because it is.
Meet Laxton’s Epicure, an English heritage variety dating back to 1909. It’s a highly attractive scarlet-flushed, summer-fruiting variety that demands to be eaten instantly – not because it’s delicious (though it is), but because it has the keeping qualities of a soap bubble.
Look at it – and it bruises. Stick it in the fruit bowl and forget about it for a week – and it turns to cotton wool.
Which is why you’ll never see it on a supermarket shelf.
Which is one of the reasons I grow it.
Or try to.
You’ll already know the buzz I get from enticing fruit and veg to appear on our sun-blasted acre of blue-clay Abruzzo hillside.
Veg is actually pretty straightforward. If something won’t/can’t grow this year – then don’t grow it next year.
But fruit is a different kettle of fish. If that’s not mixing metaphors too outlandishly.
With veg, you plan for the coming season. But with fruit, especially the fruit I try to grow, the planning extends to years.
When I was laying-out the orchard in 2008, it hadn’t really occurred to me that what flourished in our mild, damp Somerset garden might not do equally well here, though the penny did drop fairly quickly that raspberries were never going to be on our menu.
Far, far, far too hot and dry. Which explains why I have had a bowl of raspberries – (grown in Italy’s near-Alpine north-east and very, very rarely imported to Abruzzo, and even then at eye-watering expense) – exactly twice in nine years.
I invite you to share my pain.
But some like it hot. Don’t they ? Peaches and apricots ? Red, white and blackcurrants ? Damsons and greengages ? Grapes ? (Hell yes – grapes !) Figs. (Of course).
And…apples ? Well…yes. You do see a few trees round here. Not many. But maybe enough to suggest that even though they’re known to prefer it mild and damp, they can cope with hot and dry too ?
Hey ho – let’s give it a shot…
I’d be less than truthful if I claimed the orchard has been an unparalleled sucess.
A white peach from a local supplier here actually turned out to be a white nectarine. A sickly, spindly individual that did us all a favour by dying and being reincarnated as a prop for a rampant Briar Rose.
Whitecurrant ? Dead. Too hot. Blackcurrant ? Trying heroically, but destined to follow, I fear.
But on the other side of the coin, figs, peaches and damsons are ever-reliable, while pretty much everything else soldiers on bravely to greater/lesser extent, though weirdly, I’ve never had a bumper crop of everything in the same year.
The apricot’s a moody sod. Fruits like a profligate fool some years. Then reckons it’s done its bit and sits and does nothing for the next couple. Usually until the point you run out of all the apricot jam and chutney you made at the last glut.
And redcurrant’s the surprise star, thriving while the white and black varieties didn’t, and ensuring we get an annual supply of redcurrant jam to go with lamb.
(nb: Redcurrant jam. Not jelly. For which you need a jelly-bag. Which I don’t have. And have zero intention of getting. Life’s too short for jelly-bags…)
And yes. The apples. An exercise in hubris.
You have to understand that Italian apples look sensational. And in addition to looking good, they’ll also keep for decades, even in the face of a supermarket’s pitiless neglect.
Unfortunately, they don’t really taste of apple. Or anything much else. And I love a good apple too much to compromise. Hence the not inexpensive import of four old – and in a couple of cases, very old – heritage English varieties to grow here.
Aside from the July/August fruiting of Laxton’s Epicure, the others in order of their cropping were were Egremont Russet (dating from 1872); Blenheim Orange (1740); and Ribston’s Pippin (1708) and the idea was that with apples ripening from early September through to late October, (and aside from the Laxton, then keeping well for a month or so), I’d be enjoying apples from midsummer through to the New Year.
And in the UK, it might well have worked out like that.
But not in Abruzzo.
Too hot. Much, much too hot.
The trees themselves grew just fine, and after some careful pruning in their early stages, flowered prettily and profusely each spring.
With the flowers – and buds – then being eaten by a particularly noxious bug called Oziorrinco.
Two ways to cope with them. As they become so engrossed in stuffing themselves, they’re easy – if messy – to pick off and squash.
Effective and satisfyingly vindictive. But a (very) short-term solution.
Or you can spray.
I have an ambivalent attitude to spraying for pest control. Basically I’d rather not, and when it comes to flowers, roses and other ornamental plants, I’ll grudgingly tolerate a degree of damage.
But if that starts getting out of hand, then out come the chemicals. There are limits to my green eco-credentials.
But I don’t/won’t spray anything I’m going to eat. Ever.
So every year, the four apples come into flower and most of the flowers become a bug buffet. But such is their flowering profusion, a handful manage to escape creepy-crawly predation and start developing fruit, which by early July are something like golf-ball size.
Then the Abruzzo summer kicks in and most of them just give up and drop off.
But even so, spread over those four trees, maybe half-a-dozen full-size apples will develop.
One memorable summer of endless 40˚ temperatures, they all literally got cooked as they hung on the branch. The Baked Apple Tree. You actually didn’t miss much and it won’t catch on.
Otherwise, by the time they should be ready, wasps and birds have got there first; or the skins are like leather; or they’ve succumbed to some unpleasant disease.
The upshot is that in all this time, I’ve never successfully grown and eaten one single English apple in my Abruzzo orchard.
Until this year.
Spring was nothing special. Bit wet. Bit warm. All the trees as usual were covered in blossom, but for whatever reason – no oziorrinco. Or rather so few, that they made no difference at all to the stupendous crop that began developing on all four trees.
So heavy, that the fruit had to be regularly thinned to allow each apple room to grow properly.
Some cruel disaster – like the cherry-sized hailstones we had a week or so back – could yet deprive me of my burgeoning crop, but the Laxton’s Epicures are ready right now.
My first taste of a proper, English apple since 2007. And was it good ? Was it everything I hoped ? Was it swooningly delicious ?
It was even better.
Nothing – but nothing – tastes quite like a good English apple. The crispness. The perfect balance of sweet and acid. The taste and texture. The aroma.
And don’t even get me started on eating an apple with some good cheese.
Want to know something ? I’m eating one of my Laxtons this very minute. And there are more hanging on the tree, and yet more all ready picked, sitting in a bowl and waiting to be scoffed.
Which, as I mentioned, I’ll have to do quickly because of their dismal keeping qualities.
I’m already in heavy credit as regards keeping several doctors away for several days.
I don’t even have to share them because Pauline – astonishingly – doesn’t like apples that much, and besides, she’s currently cutting her own swathe through this year’s peach crop.
Which is pretty good too.
And did I mention that the greengage has cropped prodigiously as well this year and should be ready in a week or so ?
As I’ve written many times before, looking after our acre of Abruzzo can be hard, and encouraging the land to produce can be a thankless task. I don’t for a second think that this year’s bounty from the orchard means I’ve finally cracked it. Like much else here, it’s just another example of nice things happening unexpectedly.
And again like much else here, on those occasions – which can also surprise you with their frequency – don’t question them or try to rationalise. Just sit back and enjoy.