An apple a day

This year (I tend to think in academic years rather than calendar ones) has not been easy, for many reasons. I have felt exhausted a lot, and have lacked confidence on many occasions. As the teaching session ended, I was absolutely drained and ready for a break. That break has not been particularly restful, but as they say, a change is as good as a rest. We went on a tour of the Cotswolds and the Marches (the border between Wales and England, although  the definition is rather loose). Over the next few posts, I will share with you some of the wonderful things we saw, including some Roman sites.

However, it is with apples that I want to start. Apples strangely divide our family, as Big Boy T (soon to become Tween T) has an apple phobia. That phobia may not be a recognised medical phenomenon, but I can assure you that it is a fact. Since he nearly choked on a piece of apple as a young child, he cannot bear the sight of someone eating the fruit. Little Boy G (soon to become Big Boy G) often taunts his brother by devouring apples in front of his brother.

The orchard at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire on a very overcast afternoon

I  have recently taken a great interest in the history of apples and their cultivation. That interest was somewhat theoretical until I read Tracy Chevalier’s great latest novel At the Edge of the Orchard, where apple trees and the art of grafting play a central part. This is the story of the Goodenough family trying to settle in the Great Black Swamp of Ohio in the early nineteenth century. Apples divide the family: the father wants to plant eating apples, which he grows through grafting; the mother prefers ‘spitters’, apples that can be made into alcohol, and which grow from seed. The fate of the family and that of its orchard intertwine, and ultimately it is the human grafted scion, the illegitimate child, who thrives. Or at least, that is how I interpret the story…

The eating apple that is grown by the Goodenough family is the exotically named Pitmaston Pineapple, which originated in Worcester, and apparently has a pineapple aftertaste. I have never tasted the Pitmaston Pineapple, but I was very pleased to see some Pitamston Pineapple trees in the beautiful orchards we visited last week at Berrington Hall and Croft Castle, both in Herefordshire. The number of apple varieties in those orchards is simply astounding, and the apple names are enchanting: Ladies’ Finger of Hereford; Doctor Hare’s; Blenheim Orange; Catshead; Court Pendu Plat; Sweeney Nonpareil; Pomeroy of Hereford; Christmas Pearmain; King’s Acre Bountiful; Crimson Queening; Maiden’s Blush; Ten Commandments; Pig’s Nose Pippin; Ashmead’s Kernel; Orleans Reinette; Nutmeg Pippin; Gascoyne’s Scarlet; Newton Wonder; Cockle’s Pippin; Court of Wick; and so on and so forth. What ingenuity in those names!

In Antiquity too there were numerous varieties of apples, with interesting names to boot. Pliny the Elder (first century CE) devotes a long section of Book 15 of his Natural History to the topic. He tells us that, through grafting, people have developed new varieties of fruit, to which they have given their own name, thereby preserving it for posterity (15.49). Pliny is critical of that practice, and expresses preference for naming apples after their place of origin or some other interesting characteristic. He lists the Amerian apple, the Little Greek; the Syrian red; the pear-apple; the honey-apple; the round apple; the leaf-apple; the ragged apple; the lung-apple; the flour-apple; and my two favourite:

The orchard at Croft Castle, Herefordshire

The orthomastium (literally in Greek, the pert breast) named for its resemblance to breasts; and that which the Belgians call ‘eunuch’ because of its absence of seed. (Pliny, Natural History 15.51).

Perhaps not on the same level as the Maiden’s Blush, but not far off!

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This entry was posted in botany, Food history, Gardening, History, Plants, Travelling and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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