The fat, perfect apples I’ve picked from our two trees have sat like prizes in the conservatory window these last few weeks. These trees were the only food producers in my garden until this year’s Eatin’ Project, but this is the first year they’ve excelled. I insist on taking the credit, even though the experts say it’s the weather that’s given us great fruit yields this year. Do you think I can get away with that? Anyway, here’s what’s I’ve done that I believe helped the apples:
- Light and air: A few years ago Glenn next door asked if we’d consider cutting down a spruce that shaded both our gardens. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Removing the spruce and pruning the apples’ crowded branches gradually over three years has now given them an open shape and lots of space between the limbs — enough to throw a hat between them, as the saying goes. This year the fruit ripened better and there were no brown spots as in other years, either because of better air circulation, or a drier summer, or both, I’m not sure.
- Sulfate of potash: I give both trees a dressing of this to promote fruiting, and it works. But Lia and other writers have recently got me thinking I must look into what’s involved in its manufacture. If I’m shaking white dust from a box onto the ground, I should investigate whether it’s the best thing for my friend Gaia. I’d like to investigate substitutes, like woodash; but I don’t know the amounts to use or whether it’s as effective.
- Nip it in the bud: I’d always been reluctant to follow the advice about thinning out developing apples to leave 10cm between them. But I see now what a difference it makes. I missed out part of one tree when thinning this year, and the fruits were about half as big. All our apples are destined for baking, and there’s nothing fun about peeling two small fruits that could have been one big one.
- Accept the apples, don’t pick: I’d often heard but rarely heeded the professional advice about picking: that you should cradle and gently turn ripening apples to check their readiness, instead of pulling them. But this year I did it, and for those that were ready, the apple and stem came away from the tree easily, as if they’d been waiting for me. Just before harvest time I’d heard a Scotland’s Gardens podcast about how a deciduous tree shuts off the flow of nutrients to its autumn leaves, so that when they fall, there are no open wounds: the leaf is a finished thing, its connection with the tree is finished. I came to see the apples in the same way and checked them daily with my young daughter, who loved lifting the fruit gently in her tiny hand. When one was ready, we just accepted it from the tree: no picking required.
How do I make my mother’s apple pie?
I love the crispy, gooey topping on apple crumble (or apple crisp, as we called it back home), but even I got tired after the third one. So – after reluctantly replacing the rolling pin that had been sacrificed to modeling clay activities before becoming lost altogether – I attempted my mother’s apple pie. I didn’t let the kids help; I told them I was like Nina and the Neurons, doing an experiment in the lab, and they could help next time. So the whole experience was quite peaceful, and frame by frame, pictures from my mother’s kitchen table appeared in my brain, when I was chest-high to the work surface.
I love learning new things but hate making mistakes, so where the recipe didn’t give me answers, I was glad the pictures showed me what to do. “Slice them thin – your father doesn’t like a mouthful of hard apple in his pie.” “Get me the blue plate – it’s stoneware, the other ones crack in the oven.” “Tuck the top crust under the bottom one around the edge – you want to have apples right out to the edge, not a bunch of crust out there.” Then the milk brushed onto the top, the air holes poked to vent the steam, the baking tray beneath to catch any drips. I didn’t make the pastry offcuts into cinnamon-and-sugar shapes to bake separately, but I was delighted to suddenly recall these; I hadn’t thought of them in 30 years.
My only problem was needing to be at a plant sale down the road at the same time the pie was due to come out, so I entrusted the whole thing to a timed shut-off of the oven. When I opened the oven a few hours later, I was a bit surprised to find my mother’s apple pie, brown and warm, redolent of clove and cinnamon, just like her kitchen on pie days, but with my apples. The kids were still at swimming with my husband, so I had a slice of pie and a glass of milk in the same solitude with which I’d made it. It was a good Saturday.