I. On Apples
People are often surprised by just how much it is possible to forage in a city, even in the depths of winter. The above pictures are the fruits of a recent foray in Leicester with M and R, and there were a lot more left on the trees. Many cities – London especially – have built over and around former orchards, and it is not hard to find trees that have risen from discarded apple cores along the roadside or the banks of canals. I was delighted to find one set of trees in Lincolnshire recently that I initially thought had been decorated with Christmas lights, but were in fact laden with apples. Often, it is just a case of looking a little closer.
Unfortunately, supermarket conditioning has left us wary of fruit that isn’t uniformly shaped and coloured. I use ‘uniformly’ over any other adjective, as I believe a fruit can be described as ‘pristine’ or ‘perfect’ even if it does not adhere to supermarket standards. It worries and angers me in equal measure to see kilos of fruit left to rot at the base of a tree on a street, only to see people buying them at an extortionate price from the supermarket. If you are lucky enough to have such a resource in your community, please use it, and encourage others to do so. There are few things more lovely than to see a box of fruit left out with a notice encouraging people to take some home with them.
Apples have been among the worst victims of supermarkets’ attacks on our biodiversity and gastronomical history, though tomatoes come in at a close second (those horrible inch-thick skins have been encouraged for the purposes of stopping damage in transit). According to Common Ground, a charity known for its celebration and preservation of Local Distinctiveness, “Of the 2,000 culinary and dessert apples, and hundreds more cider varieties, which have been grown in this country, only a few handfuls are widely known and used today”. This is a terrible loss, but mostly because it demonstrates fear and a lack of curiosity. The multiplicity of flavours and the potential that they open up to us are among the greatest of riches that we can enjoy for free, why reduce this wealth of manna to three pedestrian possibilities? There is more to apples than the Cox, Granny Smith and the Pippin.
II. On Vinegar
There are always apples that are going to be beyond their best after a happy afternoon foraging, and that’s fine. Some will be bruised, some will be cracked, but all will have their usage. One of the best uses I like to put these apples to is the production of cider vinegar. Although decent cider vinegar can be bought in the shops, nothing quite compares to the stuff that you can make at home. This way, you are able to control the flavours according to your tastes, and can produce large quantities, which are a wonderful culinary gift to friends, and an invaluable resource to those of you interested in preservation and fermentation. No chutney would be quite right without cider vinegar.
The second advantage, useful to the more adventurous among you, is the ‘mother’. The ‘mother’, or ‘starter’ is a term often used in fermentation processes to describe the bacterial or yeast cultures that transform one product into another, e.g. milk into yoghurt, flour and water mixtures into yeast. Vinegar making also produces a ‘mother’, an unwanted thing if your initial intention was to make cider, but a very happy thing if it’s vinegar you’re after. Happily, the mother can be re-used and given away, and once washed, can be fed a number of different liquids to produce different vinegars. Buying one would set you back a bit of cash, so why bother when you can make it for free?
When making cider vinegar, I recommend the following recipe. I will let you know how this current batch comes along.