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The Upside Down: Why Apples are Odder than they Look

John Mitchinson explores the diversity within the fruit of knowledge

Photo: Johan Swanepoel/Alamy

The Upside DownWhy Apples are Odder than they Look

John Mitchinson explores the diversity within the fruit of knowledge

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This weekend I spent a day crushing apples into pulp and channelling the sweetly fragrant, rapidly oxidising juice into fermentation tanks. This has long been a village ritual, revived and streamlined in recent years, but this year’s apple crop was exceptional – last year’s blossom had been decimated by late frosts – and we managed to tank up 700 litres, every last drop destined for cider.

Cider, in case you hadn’t noticed, is having a moment. Britain now accounts for 39% of the global cider market with almost half of Britain’s households consuming some cider in the last year, with sales in 2021 running 7% up on the pre-pandemic levels, and small craft producers up 45% over the same period.

I’m guessing village hobbyists like us are also on the rise. After all, cider making is a communal activity – messy, joyful, an investment in good times for the future; something the pandemic has taught us all to value more dearly.

Apples have some claim to being our national fruit, although edible apples aren’t a native species. 

The domesticated apple originated in the primaeval apple forests of the Tien Shan mountains in central Asia. One possible derivation for Almaty, Kazakhstan’s main city is ‘father of apples’ in the Kazakh language. Travellers on the Silk Roads took a shine to the fruit and spat their pips out as they travelled and so the fruit spread to Europe. 

One variety in particular – Malus seiversii – is the likely ancestor of all 8,000 plus named varieties of edible apples (Malus domestica). According to the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent, over 2,000 of these are found in the UK, with a rich heritage of names from Slack ma Girdles and Hog’s Snouts to Knobby Russets, Greasy Butchers and Fox Whelps.

Despite this, we still import over 70% of our eating apples and one in three of the home-grown apples we consume are Cox’s. However, since 1990, the local distinctiveness’ charity Common Ground has worked to establish 21 October as Apple Day, a celebration of the astonishing variety, utility and cultural heritage of English apples.

Some of the fruit’s success is due to this genetic predisposition towards diversity. Plant a seed from your Cox or your Granny Smith and the tree that grows will produce fruit that looks and tastes completely unlike the apple you ate. Each apple seed produces offspring that are distinct individuals, quite unlike their parents. Humans share this tendency, but to a much lesser extent. Without grafting – invented by the Chinese 3,000 years ago – your sweet and juicy Worcester Pearmain would have disappeared centuries ago. 

The Upside DownWhy Being ‘Bird-Brained’ is a Compliment

John Mitchinson

The symbolic dimension of apples is also complex and confusing. Even the etymology is hazy. The likely derivation is from the Proto-Germanic root *aplaz, (ultimately derived from Proto-Indo-European *abl-) which also feeds into the Germanic words appel (Dutch) eple (Old Norse) and Apfel (German), although this could also mean ‘fruit’ in general. As a result, the medieval English term for banana was appel of paradis, dates were fingeræppla (‘finger-apples’) and cucumbers (rather than the then unknown potato) were eorþæppla (‘earth-apples’).

This lack of specificity also afflicts the classical names for the fruit. The Latin for ‘apple’ is malum which comes from the Greek word melon. Both Greeks and Romans used the word melon or malum to refer to any roundish fruit that grows on a tree: such as apples, pomegranates, quinces, peaches and lemons. 

This sense of an ‘apple’ as a general term for fruit probably led to its adoption as the fruit of the tree of knowledge, which Adam and Eve consume in the Garden of Eden. In fact, scholarly cases have been made for the Hebrew word tappuach as referring to quince, wheat or banana rather than apple, as all three were cultivated earlier than the apple.

But let’s get back to the cider. We add nothing to our juice, preferring to let nature take its course and allow the yeasts that occur naturally on the skin of the apples to turn the sugar in the juice to alcohol. The result is an intensely dry, apple-rich flavour and a very different quality of intoxication. After a bottle or three, euphoria sets in and the drinker finds themselves babbling in an unstoppable flow.

I found a clue as to why in Merlin Sheldrake’s fine book on fungi, Entangled Life. “Different varieties of apple,” he explains, “have their own indigenous yeast cultures, each fermenting at its own pace, preferentially preserving and transforming different elements of the fruit’s flavour.”

His experience of drinking home-made cider chimes with my own. “I was intoxicated with a story, comforted by it, constrained by it, dissolved in it, made senseless by it.” 

In other words, not so much drunk as high on yeast and tradition.

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