With so many varieties of British apple available, chefs can pinpoint the precise flavour and texture they want for a dish, says chef-consultant Russell Brown
It’s easy to take seasonality for granted with so much imported produce available year round, but the lines are also blurred by advances in growing techniques and storage.
This does make it difficult to clearly define a product’s season.
Apples are often kept for many months in cold storage and their life can be extended even further in modified atmosphere storage, where controlled oxygen levels, temperature and humidity are used to prolong the life of the fruit. What is clear, though, is that without a huge amount of knowledge, attention to detail and skill from the growers, the end result would be disappointing. One essential component is knowing when the fruit is ready to be picked, whether that is just by dint of experience or the application of science.
I recently visited Four Elms Fruit Farm in Sidmouth, Devon, one of the only growers in the region that is packing its own fruit as opposed to selling to large packing stations. It also produces a range of juices from its apples on site, very much keeping things under its own control. The business is family-run, with the third generation now involved.
There is a small shop open to the public during the picking season and seven varieties of apple were on offer when I visited.
Included in this were the four most prolifically grown in the UK: Cox, Bramley, Braeburn and Gala. According to the figures on the English Apples & Pears website, production of the Bramley seems fairly steady, with the Cox in decline and both Braeburn and Gala showing large increases in the 2009-2014 period.
There is obviously an expectation that different varieties of apple will have different tastes and most chefs would choose a specific apple for a particular dish, but it is enlightening to have the opportunity to taste a range of different varieties side by side.
The different juice levels, textures and flavours are all significant. Sweet, crisp, firm, crunchy, nutty, fine, honeyed, tart and juicy are all words used to describe apples, with some varieties showing flavours such as aniseed, pear drops and melon. The Egremont Russet is perhaps the most distinctive variety, with its slightly rough, brownish skin and creamy, nutty flavour. Fresh cobnuts and hints of sweet raspberry come to mind when tasting the flesh.
The Bramley is grown prolifically in the UK and is our most significant cooking apple. It also has the longest season, being available almost all year around. The flesh breaks down to a light and fluffy texture when cooked but retains a great depth of sharp apple flavour. It is the classic variety for pies, crumbles and chutneys.
Apples span the sweet/savoury divide well, giving chefs wide-ranging opportunities to incorporate the fruit into menus. Traditional examples would be roast pork with apple sauce or an apple charlotte but modern cooking finds many more uses for the fruit. These vary from twists on the traditional, such as
Elliot Lidstone’s crispy pig’s ears with tangy apple sauce served at Box E, a restaurant in a development of converted shipping containers at Wapping Wharf in Bristol. Brett Sutton at the White Post, Rimpton, on the Dorset/Somerset border, is using Bramley apples in an apple and pear crumble spiked with ginger. And Michelin-starred chef Mark Jordan at the Atlantic hotel in Jersey favours Russets for an apple nougatine dessert.
Buying and storage tips
It is well worth choosing specific varieties to work with a particular dish.
● Fruit will usually have been kept in cold storage so it is best to store apples
in the fridge.
● Fruit should be firm when pressed.
● In red apples, the depth and coverage of the colour is a sign of ripeness.
● Apples continue to ripen after picking; refrigeration slows this process.
Buying and storage tips
The British apple harvest starts in August with the Discovery variety and finishes in November with Braeburn. Modern storage techniques mean that top-quality British dessert apples are available until March or April and Bramleys for most of the year.
Expect to pay about £1.20 to £1.50 per kg for Coxes, Russets and Bramleys and about £1.40 to £1.60 per kg for Braeburns.
Salad of Mozzarella with raw and caramelised apple, pickled fennel and chicory
250g best quality buffalo Mozzarella
3 heads of chicory, broken into leaves
30g rocket leaves
2 Russet apples, halved, cored and finely sliced
For the caramelised apple
2 Braeburn apples
10g unsalted butter
10g caster sugar
1dsp cider vinegar
Maldon sea salt and fresh black pepper
Peel and core the apples and cut into 8 wedges. Heat the butter in a non-stick pan and add the apple.
Sprinkle with the sugar and cook over a high heat to caramelise.
Deglaze with the cider vinegar and reduce completely. Season and transfer to a plate to cool.
For the pickled fennel (prepare 24 hours ahead)
1 bulb fennel
1tsp Maldon salt
75g caster sugar
75ml white wine
75ml cider vinegar
1tsp mustard seeds
1 small star anise
Peel the fennel, trim the top and cut in half lengthwise. Remove the core and root then slice finely.
Mix the fennel with the salt and allow to sit for an hour, stirring occasionally.
Combine the sugar, wine, vinegar, peppercorns, mustard seeds and star anise and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and allow to infuse. Rinse the fennel and squeeze out the moisture. Bring the pickling liquid to the boil and pass through a fine sieve onto the fennel. Allow to cool at room temperature.
Toss the chicory, rocket and raw apple together, season and dress.
Arrange the leaves on a plate. Drain the pickled fennel and dress with a little olive oil and seasoning.
Scatter the fennel over the leaves. Add the caramelised apple and then the Mozzarella.
Season the cheese and drizzle over a little more vinaigrette.
Bramley and apple crumble with apple and sultana syrup
For the apple compôte
40g unsalted butter
500g Bramley apples, peeled, cored and sliced
50g caster sugar
3 Cox apples, peeled, cored and cut into 5mm dice
Melt the butter in a large non-stick frying pan and sauté the sliced Bramleys.
Sprinkle on the sugar and continue to cook until the apple is well caramelised.
Add the sultanas and flame with the Calvados. Cook over a low heat until the apple collapses, adding a little water to help it break down. The final mix should be dry and hold its shape. Allow to cool for 5 minutes and then fold in the diced apple. Chill until required.
For the crumble
35g unsalted butter
70g plain flour
30g muscovado sugar
30g caster sugar
Zest of ½ lemon
Pinch of finely ground Maldon salt
Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Fold in the sugars, lemon zest and salt. Chill until required.
For the sultana syrup
1 vanilla pod
60ml apple juice
90ml white wine
25g caster sugar
Split the vanilla pod and scrape out all the seeds. Place the pod and seeds into a pan with the other ingredients. Bring to a simmer and reduce until syrupy. Chill until required.
Wrap 75mm diameter stainless steel rings first in silicone paper and then foil. Fill with 90g apple compôte and then 30g crumble. Bake at 160°C for 15 minutes.
Serve with the syrup, clotted cream and caramelised apple.