Genesis tells us that the world’s first fruit was the apple. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. In any case, it wouldn’t have been a Golden Delicious or any of the varieties you see for sale in supermarkets. It would have been the tart-tasting crab apple.
Crab apples are found wild and occasionally cultivated across a wide geography. Several species in the genus Malus. Botanists and horticulturalists trace the origin of our domesticated apple to the crab apple. The original wilding from which all varieties derive. But it’s an origin story with gaps and ambiguity. (Aren’t they all?) Exactly when this small, sour fruit transformed into the sweet eating apple is unknown. A crab apple native to the Caucasus and Central Asia (an area of extraordinary biodiversity) is considered the main progenitor, but other species, including the European crab apple (Malus sylvestris) contributed their DNA.
Malus sylvestris has been found in Bronze Age remains and—as wergulu—it appears in an Anglo-Saxon collection of remedies and invocations from the tenth- and eleventh-century. While Shakespeare, a man who knew his apples and wild plants, refers to crab apples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear, and in Love’s Labour Lost he mentions roasted crab apples hissing in a bowl.
Crab apples hybridise freely with other Malus species. Australia’s Granny Smith came about when Maria Ann Smith dumped some crab apples on her Eastwood property. Only to discover, sometime later, the seedling of the green apple that now bears her name.
For the most part, gardeners plant crab apple trees for their spectacular spring blossom. The fruit gets thrown into the compost bin or left to rot. Which is a pity because crab apple jelly is a delicious thing. And it’s not the fruit’s only culinary option. In Korea I’ve eaten crab apples roasted and also drunk a tea made with their strained and sweetened juice. There are recipes for wines and ciders, and my mother’s friend Vi, originally from Lithuania, served crab apples with roast pork and pheasant.
Commercially produced crab apple jelly is hard to find. Farmers’ markets and CWA (Country Women’s Association of Australia) stalls are probably your best bet. Much as I love it, I haven’t made crab apple jelly for years. Malus sylvestris and its close relatives are classified as environmental weeds in parts of Australia. Picking them is risky because they may have been sprayed with something toxic. But in England trees push up from hedgerows and overhang fences. Come autumn kids dare each other to eat ‘a crabby-apple’ while adults retrieve wide-necked jars from sheds and cupboards and prepare them to receive the year’s stash.
Recipes for crab apple jelly are whispered down through generations, hand-written in pencil on slips of paper and tucked inside old cookery books. First tip: Don’t gather the fruit until it has a red blush or it’ll be so sharp it’ll strip the moisture from your tongue. Divide the fruit at its equator and chop roughly. Second tip: immerse in water as soon as it’s cut open to prevent browning. In our house the crab apples were cooked in a big pan reserved for making jams and preserves. Once softened to near mushiness the fruit and any residual liquid was tipped into a length of muslin and tied. A kitchen chair was upended and the muslin balloon suspended over a large bowl. It would hang there overnight. I remember falling asleep to the drip, drip of jelly in progress.
David Mabey and Rose Mabey, authors of the wonderfully comprehensive Penguin Book of Jams, Pickles and Chutneys, advise patience. Apple-based jelly mixtures, they write, take a long time to strain.
Once strained, the rosé-coloured juice was boiled with sugar. Test spoonfuls of the syrup drizzled onto a cold saucer until it set to a glaze. Some recipes call for spices, liquor or orange, but in our house such additions were never countenanced. I think the jelly is better left to itself, full and fragrant with hints of sourness.
‘Don’t throw away the apple pulp left in the jelly bag, but use it to make crab apple cheese,’ suggest David and Rose Mabey. It was apparently ‘a feature of the Victorian dinner table’. The Penguin Book of Jams, Pickles and Chutneys has a recipe—and no doubt there are others on the internet. I’m not familiar with fruit cheeses, but I imagine this one would be something like quince paste.
Back to jelly. The end preserve should be transparent not cloudy. Tip number three: Don’t squeeze the muslin pouch while the fruit is straining or you’ll encourage cloudiness. After the jelly was decanted into jars and cooled they’d be held up to the light to check its clarity. If everything had gone according to plan it would be clear and shine like stained glass.
One September a few years ago I witnessed a spectacular harvest of Malus sylvestris. Or rather potential harvest because the fruit was still on the trees. Great bunches ripe for the picking hung from branches. And I thought, an autumn profusion of crab apples is one of those public events which are private events because, although people may notice this abundance, each of us notices it alone. You’re not going to see news headlines announcing that this was a brilliant year for crab apples. The cornucopia passes unrecorded. Which, in a world where so much is recorded, is perhaps no bad thing.