Apple Nirvana

I’ve been eating apples for the past two weeks. Not the wax-coated prettier-than-a-picture supermarket type. These are craggily looking, with ruts and off-colored spots from growing wild. They’re feral apples, of sorts. Relatively small with green skin, they’re nothing to look at, but they are delicious. I’ve eaten them raw as a snack, I’ve had them in my cereal, and I’ve had them on sandwiches with cheddar cheese and mayonnaise. I’ve even snuck them into my son’s lunch box. And now as I write this article my house is permeated with the aroma of cooking apples -- I’m simmering puree into apple butter. But still my crisper drawer is stuffed with the fruit. Am I obsessed with apples? No. I just happen to have a sister who is the proud owner of a couple apple trees.

I’ve read that if you’re a long-distance runner and you run for a certain distance you obtain a “runner’s high,” a sort of athletic nirvana. Never having ran more than a few feet, for my own pleasure anyhow, I cannot attest to this. But I can definitely say that I have a new found appreciation for this most noble of fruits. I haven’t exactly achieved an “apple high,” but I have definitely had my fill.

Apples are an interesting fruit (I’ve had plenty options to contemplate this recently) and they have an incredible story. The famed Greek writer, Homer, for example, gave mention of apples growing in his father’s garden prior to the 8th century BCE. And when Eve entered the Garden of Eden she found a fruit so perfect and enticing that she was in awe, and also tempted. Historians have claimed this most seductive fruit to be everything from an apricot, banana, or even a pomegranate, but it’s most often written that it was an apple that was growing in the garden of all gardens. In fact the Latin word for apple is pomum, which is also the Latin word for fruit, implying that the apple is the "fruit of fruits," or at least the most noble of them. These are pretty heavy facts for something as humble as a fruit that can be simply plucked from a tree and eaten without the slightest preparation.

Apples are most likely indigenous to the area surrounding the Black Sea, but they’ve been growing in New England since at least the mid-1600s. Benjamin Franklin, who was an avid farmer, is said to have had an apple orchard on his land because of his love for the fruit. There’s also the famed John Chapman, who eventually became known as Johnny Appleseed because of his penchant for walking across the country dressed in tattered clothing and armed with nothing more than sacks of apple seeds that he planted by the grove (it sounds like Johnny was a little socially challenged). If someone did this today they would no doubt be arrested for trespassing and vagrancy. Nonetheless, apples flourished in the temperate climate of the northern states, and continue to do so. They have become ingrained into our very culture. Things American, after all, are often referred to as “American as apple pie."

Apples, like most fruits, can be utilized in almost any preparation, sweet and savory, but of course the area in which they truly shine is dessert. And one of my favorite bits of lore involving apples is about the famed French upside down apple tart called “tarte tatin.”

What I find interesting about this dessert is not in its difficultness, because it’s a simple dessert to make, but more so in the ingenuity of its creation. This particular apple tart takes its name from the Tatin sisters who owned a small hotel in the Loire valley of France in the beginning of the last century. According to legend, the Hotel Tatin, which was in the little town Lamotte-Beuvron, stood close to the train station. The newly constructed line from Paris brought a fair share of sophisticated clientele to the hotel each day. Trying to impress this new influx of sophisticates, and having a wood-fired stove of old design -- one without an oven -- they developed a tart made from local apples.

This tart was “baked” upside-down on top of the stove under a covered dome, and the reason was this: If the delicate pastry came into direct contact with the heat of their wood-fired stove it would most definitely burn before the apples were sufficiently cooked. By placing the apples in the pan first, along with some butter and sugar, and then topping it with the pastry, both the apples and pastry cooked properly while the butter and sugar formed a caramel. Once this process was complete, the tart was inverted onto a plate, right side up. Ingenious pair, those Tatin sisters. Though tarte tatin is still baked upside-down today, part of the process is done so in a conventional oven, which no doubt yields more consistent results.

Just as the old adage suggests, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away," apples are very good for you. On average, one medium-sized apple has only about 80 calories, contains natural fruit sugar, potassium, vitamins A and C, and more than 20 percent of your daily-recommended intake of dietary fiber. Apples do not contain any fats, cholesterol, or sodium; like many fruits they are more than 80 percent water. Much of the vitamins, fiber and other nutrients are located in the skin. Thus, to get the most out of an apple eat the skin. The skin, and the area closest to it, carries almost one third of the vitamin C content.

Apples are available year round and are reasonably priced and of good quality, but their peak season is late summer to early fall. October, in fact, is National Apple Month. When purchasing apples select those that are firm and free of bruises or dents. They should have an overt fruity, apple fragrance. Apples should be stored in a cool dark place; kept in refrigeration they will last up to 10 times longer than if left at room temperature (up to 90 days, according to the U.S. Apple Association). Apples also absorb flavors and odors easily, so it's best to store them away from foods with strong odors. And interestingly, apples emit ethylene, a naturally occurring gas that encourages ripening. Thus, it's best to store apples separate from other produce (or in a plastic bag) to prevent them from accelerating the ripening of other fruits and vegetables.

Now if you’ll excuse me…I have to go stir some apples.

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