Today (October 21) is National Apple Day and when I think of apples, I fondly recall the big, misshapen, sharp-tasting cooking apples with which my Nan used to make delicious apple pies and crumbles. I have never seen such apples in Portugal although Reineta apples are a tasty but unequal substitute.
Did you know that both the apple crumble and apple pie originated in Britain? The crumble was invented during WWII to cope with the rationing of ingredients, whilst the apple pie’s earliest documented recipe is from 1381.
There are over 7,500 apple tree varieties worldwide and apples belong to the rose family which includes cherries, plums, pears and peaches. Their versatility means they are eaten raw or cooked in sweet or spicy dishes and used to make alcoholic drinks. Apple sauce is a babies’ favourite first food and excellent to accompany roast pork! Interestingly, I have learnt that if you oversalt your stews, a few apple slices in the pot remove the excess salt.
Genetic and fossil evidence suggests that apple trees go back approximately nine million years and there is evidence that people have been eating them since 6,500 BC. However, the ‘modern’ apples originated in Kazakhstan from the Malus sieversii trees that still grow in the area today. The Romans and Greeks introduced apples to other communities during their conquests, and it was the British and Spanish that took the apples to North America because they wanted to make cider!
The science of growing apples is called pomology and the process of hybridization, where tree branches are grafted on to other trees, has led to the huge apple variety we see today. Each new apple has taken years of planning and testing over many generations as trees grown from seed can take a minimum of six years’ growth before they produce fruit.
Cross-breeding takes place to bring forth desirable apple traits, relating to taste, texture, size and life span. Trees are also cross-pollinated, with the seeds of the resulting apples becoming the new variety carrying the dominant traits of the two parent trees.
Some apple varieties have, however, been around for years. The Granny Smith was discovered by Australian farmer Maria Ann Smith in 1868 and became popular because of its long shelf life for transportation. The Red Delicious apple was discovered by Jesse Hiatt on his farm in 1880 and was originally named the Hawkeye, but it was renamed in 1914. The Golden Delicious apples that are now grown all over the world were found by the Stark brothers who produced them commercially from 1916.
China is the world’s largest apple producer whilst Turkey, Poland and Italy are the EU’s top producers. Portugal produces over 350 tons a year, representing just 2.5% of the EU production, and those grown here include Golden Delicious, Casa de Alcobaça, Royal Gala, Red Delicious, Jonagold, Reineta, Fuji, Granny Smith and Pink.
Because apples prefer cooler autumns and winters, they are cultivated north of Lisbon with the Alcobaça region being the most productive. Unfortunately, apples are very prone to bugs and fungi diseases which are usually controlled with pesticides that are not so healthy for our consumption. Most of an apple’s nutrients are found in its skin so, in peeling them, we are trading some of the benefits but, as my daughter said, “I’d rather have less nutrients than eat pesticides!” Those organic, not-so-perfect-looking apples are now becoming more attractive!
Most apple crops are still picked by hand all over the world. I have never been apple picking, but my family and I have been pear picking in Caldas da Rainha. It was an enlightening experience as we helped an elderly couple pick their four orchards as they had no other help, and this was their yearly income source.
It was blazing hot as, each armed with a bucket, we picked the largest pears I have ever seen, much larger than the ones we get in the supermarkets here in the Algarve and which were destined for export to Spain.
There was something compulsively obsessive about picking just one more pear – just one more! – and each night when we went to bed, we found that when we closed our eyes, we could see pears imprinted just like when you look at a light bulb. I presume it is the same with picking apples!
Apples played an important part in many cultures and mythology. Mother Earth, Gaia, gave Zeus and Hera a golden apple tree on their wedding day to symbolise their love. The ‘Golden Apple’ provides the gods in Norse mythology with good health and immortality and, in ‘The Arabian Nights’, a magical apple cures any illness. Apples are strongly depicted in Christianity because they are considered to be the forbidden fruit that tempted Adam and Eve.
Apples are, of course, forever associated with Sir Isaac Newton’s 1680’s theory of gravity which was inspired by his questioning of why apples fell down rather than sideways or up. Newton was also responsible for theories on visible light, the laws of motion and for contributing to calculus, but it is the apple story that people remember him for the most. The tree from which the infamous apple fell is still in the orchard at Woolsthorpe Manor in the UK and it is now over 400 years old.
Nowadays, the word Apple is also synonymous with the computers and there are many stories as to why Steve Jobs, the founder of the company, chose the name. He did like apples, but it was “partially because Apple is ahead of Atari in the phone book and I used to work at Atari”. Another story suggests that the Apple logo is symbolic of Adam and Eve’s bite of the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. The company’s McIntosh computer was actually named after Canada’s national apple, the McIntosh Red.
Apples are a good source of fibre, calcium, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamins A to E, with studies indicating their antioxidant benefits can lower the risk of asthma and artery diseases. They promote good gut bacteria, reduce diabetes and cancer risks.
The saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is, therefore, appropriate, but this saying actually derives from an earlier saying “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread”, which was first recorded in 1866.
On that note, I am off to taste the different apples I bought for my photos!
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
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Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.