Tuesday, 20 October 2015

An apple a day

Dear Nigel,

It is National Apple Day on 21st October. Many places will have put on Apple Days at the weekend - a bit like the one we went to at The Dove Valley Centre here in The Peak District.

National Apple Day was started in 1990 by Common Ground in Covent Garden. The idea was to celebrate and demonstrate the richness and variety of apples in this country. Common Ground chose to use the apple as a symbol of the kind of genetic diversity that we mustn't just let slip away. By linking particular apples with their place of origin it hopes that our orchards will be recognised and conserved for the contribution they make to an area and the diversity of wildlife that they help support.

By 2000 there were over 600 Apple Day events up and down the country. Our Apple Day was probably a fairly typical event in many respects. There was a table with bowls of different apple varieties to look at and taste. Two which caught my eye were 'Roland Smith', which is one of our local Staffordshire varieties, and 'Jesmond Dingle' which originated from very near where my Grandparents lived. These are just two varieties of English apple. The National Fruit Collection is housed at Brogdale in Kent and has over 2000 varieties.

Transition Leek had taken over an old barn at the farm and brought a fine wood and cast iron apple press with them. Many people had brought over trugs of their own apples so that they could be turned into juice at a nominal cost. One typical ledger I read was for 33kg of apples, which would then be turned into 11 bottles of apple juice. Customers then had a choice whether they wanted their own apple juice back pasteurised or non-pasteurised.

Molly headed straight over to a hand-cranked iron apple peeler, that was clamped to the edge of a table, and spent an inordinately long time with the machine which peeled, cored and sliced the apples in one go.

There were plenty of apple-related events going on, from crafts and printing for the children, baking apples in the embers of a wood fire, to munching on apple cake and tea over in the centre. This has become an annual event that we like to go to because the surroundings are so beautiful and unique and Elspeth and Paul make everyone very welcome at their home.

But, for us, the highlight of the visit is always Gordon the Story Teller. The children sit on hay bales under the apple tree while this gentle giant in his Rainbow cloth and silver earrings talks softly in his heavy Scottish accent, charming them away to another land. I am sitting with them munching into a piece of someone's apple and Wensleydale cake. The cheese has been baked into the cake in a single layer. It is very nice indeed. There is a film show of the baby barn owls that hatched out recently, up in the hay loft; and someone else is leading a guided talk over by the orchard.

The weather is suitably Autumnal but dry and it is warmer here over by the wood fire where I go to help Sophie take a softening apple wrapped in foil out of the white hot embers. The cinnamon and brown sugar have pooled underneath the apple like heavenly-scented molasses and she sits on a hay bale, cups it onto her knees and digs in with a teaspoon. It is a fine day to be outside, togged up in jumpers and warm clothes and stomping over the long grass in wellies to find the wooden swing tied up under a large overhanging tree. A kids paradise.

I go to listen to a talk by a nutritionist who confirms something I have long believed, which is that apples are good for rheumatoid arthritis. Research shows that eating an apple daily reduces cholesterol  and C-reactive protein (CRP) which is a key marker of inflammation in the blood. It also contains vitamins A and C and is a good source of antioxidants which help protect the cells from this kind of inflammation, which is caused by free radical molecules. We rarely see the humble apple advertised as a 'Super food' (in these days of 'value added' everything where 'super foods' always seem to be rare and imported and expensive, strangely-enough), but perhaps there is a case for it being reinstated?

I am making 'Lentils with couscous' tonight (page 383). This is because I don't really like lentils - especially not the red split sort (although this uses green) - and so I am challenging my taste buds to try something I would normally shy away from. This is good, I think, as your taste buds change all through life. My Grandpa was a fishmonger and I remember a time as children when my brother and I wouldn't eat fish. These days I eat it all the time.

I have a little trouble in locating Walnut oil as it seems to me the supermarkets are now stocking their shelves with a whole draft of 'value added' oils - lots of chilli-infused, garlic-infused etc. so that we are fooled into thinking that we are being given more choice. Instead, they seem to have taken away the walnut oil and hazelnut oil that I remember buying in the same shop in the past to use for salad dressings; so there is actually less choice. Still, I find some in the end. I note somewhere that walnut oil is best used unheated as heating can change the flavour and give it a slightly bitter taste. You, sensibly, are using it in a dressing in this recipe.

There are lots of my favourite ingredients here - dried apricots, pine kernels, lemon, raisins, dill, so I have high hopes for this dish. Green lentils notwithstanding, I will enjoy eating it purely out of hunger.There is no alternative on the menu tonight at the cottage.

We eat. It is far better than I hoped for. The lentils are not allowed to dominate. There is a nice play of flavours between the sweetness of the apricot, the crunch of pine kernels, and the aniseedy taste of the dill (which I was a little heavy-handed with as I simply love the stuff and didn't want it to go to waste). Perhaps another dish to cook for my vegetarian friends. I sometimes find I am making them the same dish over and over again because I'm concentrating on the main dish that the rest of us meat-eaters will be enjoying; and they are usually too polite to say anything,....until it gently drops into conversation some time later.
Maybe they are just better at placing their depth charges.


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