Driving home across rural Ontario last week, en route back from a visit to my mother, I drove past a picturesque, old-fashioned farm nestled into the rolling hills. As I sailed on by, I noticed a sweet little shed at the side of the driveway with a crooked, hand-painted sign saying, “Apples for Sale.” Inside the shed were a few baskets of apples and a tin cash box.
Five minutes down the road, I made a u-turn. The apples were calling me back. As was the whole set-up – the little wooden shed, the cash box (oh, the trust in humanity – so utterly heartwarming), and the beautiful old farm-house off in the distance – all just too irresistible to miss. Besides, it’s late autumn and the days of fruit and veggie stands at the side of the road are limited. Before long, it will be a snowy landscape and I’ll only be dreaming of just-picked apples.
The apples were small, a little bumpy, and a bit blemished. They didn’t look like much but they made me smile. I bought a basket and hopped back in my car. Life is short – eat more apples, I thought as I sped off rubbing one down on my sweater and then biting into it. I couldn’t believe how sweet it was. Or how white the flesh was. Or how delicious. It reminded me of the Snow apples I remember having when I was a child but haven’t seen since. By the time I was home, six long hours of driving later, I’d eaten two more.
When I looked more closely at the label on the basket which I’d thought said McIntosh – I realized it said “Macoun” – an apple variety I’d never even heard of. I wished I’d bought more.
I’d seen a reference to the hugely diminishing number of apple varieties in a recent copy of The Economist (“Banks for Bean Counters,” September 12-18, 2015). According to the article, in the 1800s there were 7,100 different varieties of apples grown in North America. Now there are just 300 varieties. That means that 6,800 apple varieties are NO longer grown. And further, 11 varieties account for more than 90% of all apples sold. Those 11 varieties dominate because the apples are more marketable – for example – “Red Delicious” have a thick skin that hides bruises well.
It’s pretty sad, really. And worse than sad – dangerous. Our dependence on so few varieties leads us closer and closer to the risk of a blight that wipes out the entire apple population – and that same logic applies to almost everything else we eat. Thank heavens for seed banks and for the huge upsurge in interest in heritage breeds and heirloom crops.
All of this makes me think about having a little farm, not far from town, with a quaint old farm-house or better yet, an old barn converted into a house, and split rail fences, perhaps a pond, and a garden full of wonderful things – snow apples, quince, raspberries, red currants, and of course, garlic, and arugula, and kale. And asparagus. And all manner of pumpkins and squash – especially long island cheese. And a mountain of herbs. And lavender and roses and great big hydrangeas. But that’s just a dream and it’s new to me, because really, I’m a city girl. So I don’t know what I’m thinking. And I’m sure that despite the picture I have in my head of pottering around in my gum boots with a basket of fresh produce in hand – the reality is that the mountain of work would quickly diminish my enthusiasm. So I’ll continue to visit fruit and veggie stands, and farmers’ markets, and grow what I can in my own tiny little patch of ground in town.
For this absolutely straightforward, classic apple crisp, you can use any good cooking apple. McIntosh will do just fine. Serve it for dessert with creme fraiche, thick greek yogurt, whipped cream, or iced cream – add a swirl of honey if you like. That’s how I like it. Or eat it plain. It’s so good that you’ll want to have it again the next day for breakfast with a nice thick cup of serious coffee. The recipe is based on my memory of a similar recipe from the Toronto Star Cookbook. I no longer have a copy of that cookbook (left behind in one of many, many moves), so I have just ad-libbed merrily here.
Classic Apple Crisp
- 10 – 12 small to medium-sized cooking apples
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose (or gluten-free all-purpose) flour
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1/4 cup boiling water
Butter a large glass lasagna pan. Peel and core apples and cut into chunks. Place in the bottom of the pan and toss with the cinnamon.
Mix together the syrup ingredients and pour a couple of tablespoons over the apples to keep them from browning too much. Then mix together the topping ingredients – cutting the butter into the flour and brown sugar til the mixture is crumbly. Spoon over the apples and drizzle the remaining syrup evenly (ish) over the top of the apple and topping mix.
Bake at 350 deg F for about 30 minutes or until the apples are soft and the topping is browned. Let stand for at least ten minutes before serving.