Photo by Pixabay/Oldiefan
There are more than 2,500 varieties of apple grown in the UK and more than 4,500 in the USA. Some have been cultivated for centuries – there is evidence, for example, in the Jordan Valley of apples dating back to 6,500 bc – while other types are relatively young. New varieties are being discovered and bred every year as global demand continues to grow.
The apple, or Malus domestica, is a member of the rose family. It is related closely not only to pears and quinces, but also plums, blackberries and even strawberries. It is widely accepted that apple trees originate from the forests of Kazakstan and that the Romans were largely responsible for the movement of trees around its Empire, creating popular demand for the fruit and cementing it as a mainstay of the diet throughout many regions of the world.
Everything from the apple blossom* to the fallen fruit can be used in cooking, making apples a hardy, versatile and delicious essential in the kitchen. Even smoking apple wood on the barbecue imparts a subtle sweet and fruity flavour to meat, fish and vegetables.
Apples come in many different shapes and sizes, flavours and textures. There are thousands of varieties across the world, each with distinctive characteristics that make it most suitable to be enjoyed in particular recipes.
Photo by Pixabay/kie-ker
Much of this depth of variety is thanks to the fact that every apple tree is unique. Most apple trees breed through cross-pollination: the pollen from one tree being deposited on the stigma of another tree – by bees and insects or by the wind – to fertilise it. Trees belong to specific, compatible pollinating groups that give the best resulting fruit. The seeds from each apple of that tree create independent offspring, because they are a cross between the original tree and the one that it has been pollinated with. The fruit of the resulting tree will therefore be a mix between the two parents and a different apple to the original parent or even its sibling trees. This can often result in orchards having a tendency to being home to a whole host of apple tree varieties and mixes growing together.
To help combat this and generate consistent apples from the trees, master apple growers cultivate their trees in a very specific way, by taking the rootstock, which is an existing and established set of roots, and grafting a tree bud or growth to that stock. This results in a tree that is healthy, and crucially that is a direct replica of the original tree, and therefore one that will bear the same fruit. (Pears, plums, cherries and medlars are also grown in this way.)
Using rootstock allows consumers to buy apples of a consistent style and variety from supermarkets or suppliers. While the more random style of natural pollination gives us the opportunity to buy unique local apples from farm shops or smaller outlets. That sounds like the best of both worlds!
Apple blossom also has a role to play in keeping us healthy. Not only does it bear the buds that form into apples, but it is also very high in antioxidants and has been said to reduce stress and aid digestion. Apple blossom can be brewed as a tea, added to a cocktail or drink, or used as a garnish for salads and cakes. Flowering from April to June, apple blossom petals have a citrus-like flavour and the stems can taste similar to rhubarb.
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Cover courtesy of Hardie Grant
Excerpted with permission from Apple: Recipes from the Orchard by James Rich, published by Hardie Grant Books September 2019, RRP $29.99 Hardcover.