Friday, November 9, 2012



John Keats wrote those words that  so perfectly define Autumn.

Two weeks ago the clocks went back one hour  - at least they did here in Greece. It always feels like something of a landmark to me when this date comes around – definitely the end of summer at last. Man can impose his will on Time to some extent but there is still little he can do about the weather, as we are once again being reminded.

We were promised storms a few days ago, after a long spell of mild and sunny weather, and sure enough a storm arrived, right on time. Friends wrote on Facebook that snow fell in Devon and Scotland and my sister in Canada said that three weather fronts were set to collide over her house in the next few days – a multiple storm system labeled at once by the Americans, who have a way with snappy sound bites – ‘Frankenstorm’!
Today, suddenly, here in Corfu, it feels colder and a long-drawn out autumn seems to be giving way to winter. Thoughts turn to log fires and knitting and comfort food.
So I am going to write about apples.

Robert Frost wrote a poem called ‘After Apple Picking’ which implies that this apparently simple rural routine is more of a mystery and a ritual than we realize.
Perhaps it is – and autumn is after all the season that bridges life and death, that triggers in creatures the instinct and the ability to do something that Man has not yet mastered – to hibernate.
Autumn has inspired many poets and songwriters – remember this?

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands I used to hold

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I'll hear old winter's song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

Above all, for me at least, autumn is a time of nostalgia tinged with a little mild melancholy.
It is a time to meditate and contemplate and think about – apples.

Cezanne painted apples - 
-over and over again

and so did Grandma Moses

Why apples? It’s just that some of my happiest childhood memories are about apples and picking plums and blackberries, and helping my mum make jam. We had apple and plum trees in our  garden then, and I remember my favourite uncle used to make a weekly visit to check the fruit for ripeness. The first blush of ripe redness on the Worcester Pearmains, the first soft yielding of the huge Victoria plums to a surreptitious squeeze, were greeted with cries of delight by Uncle Frank. He would be the first to sample the autumn fruit again!

It’s a pity that these days if you mention ‘apple’ to someone, the first thought that flashes into their mind is likely to be about computers. Google ‘apple’ without any further qualifying words, and Steve Jobs pops up.

Say ‘apple’ to a person of my age, however, and a host of wonderful memories and associations  is likely to burst out of the memory banks.

No-one knows for sure what the fruit was that Adam and Eve ate with such disastrous consequences. Historically, all fruit that was not a berry was called an apple and the Biblical apple may well have been a pomegranate but apples featured strongly in Greek mythology and this could have influenced the interpretation of the story of the Original Sin. The Forbidden Fruit has been identified variously as the fig, the grape, a type of mushroom and even the Datura, a variety of which is known as – Thorn-Apple!

Apples have been around for thousands of years, originating in the mountains of Western Asia, and subsequently carried, with the westward migration of humanity, to Europe and the Mediterranean basin and on to North America and ultimately the rest of the world.
Truly a universal fruit.

Today there are more than 7500 varieties of apple, yet ‘thanks’ to the influence of supermarkets it sometimes seems that there are only three types of apple available - red, green and yellow. In fact the most widely grown and sold modern apple varieties are ten in number and include Macintosh (red), Granny Smith (green) and Golden Delicious (yellow).

Greek supermarkets are no different from their counterparts in other countries in the range of apples on sale, but some of them, and certainly the markets, also sell the sweet, tiny Firikia apples that used to grow only in the Mount Pelion region. Another well-known Greek apple is called ‘Xinomilo’, literally ‘sour apple’, which it certainly is.

Greek Firikia apples

Here in Corfu, we tend to eat our fruit and vegetables according to their own natural season. All summer we revel in sweet juicy ‘soft’ fruits such as strawberries, apricots, cherries, peaches and nectarines, melons, figs, plums  and grapes. Come the first rains, the cooler days and chilly evenings, and the first seasonal apples and pears begin to appear.
Modern storage methods mean that we can if we wish buy apples and pears all year round at the supermarket, but there is nothing quite like the taste and texture of a fruit that has ripened naturally. To me, there is, moreover, nothing like an English apple, one of the old-fashioned varieties that are at last enjoying a revival of interest.

Perhaps the most famous and best-loved English apple is the Cox’s Orange Pippin. The names of the great apples read like poetry – Worcester Pearmain, Laxton Superb,  Bramley, Blenheim Orange, Five Crown  Pippin and the Beauty of Bath, that always sounds to me like a character from Chaucer.

When I was a child, born and brought up in Essex, still a very rural county in those days, I had an Uncle who was Head Gardener at an old estate. 

The house was called Gosfield Hall   and was built in 1545 by a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s household. Like so many of the great houses of that period, it was visited more than once by Queen Elizabeth I and her entourage.

Gosfield Hall  underwent various additions and renovations over the centuries but by the middle of the 20th century, after a few years of war service as a billet for members of the American Air Force, it was virtually abandoned and my uncle was more the Last Gardener than the Head Gardener. Alone, he struggled against the advances of Nature and concentrated on keeping the old walled garden and the fruit trees in good repair.

I loved that garden. It dated back to Elizabethan times and had beds planted with herbs and vegetables, neatly raked paths bordered by giant lavender bushes and a row of espaliered peach and apple trees that clung to the rose-red bricks of the old, often sun-drenched, walls.

My favourite place, however, was the apple loft.
If you Google ‘apple loft’ you will be offered an endless selection of accommodation, in Britain and North America for the most part, most of it described as ‘former’ or ‘converted from’ old apple lofts.
There is no mention of the apple lofts I remember, and there are no photos.
Gone forever, perhaps, like so much of our English rural history.
I used to climb the outside wooden stairs up to the lofts, which were dim, the only light coming from small cobweb -festooned  windows.  The lofts were dry and airy, lined with simple shelving and the central areas were occupied by big tables on which were trays and trays of apples.

My uncle used to set me to work – I had to earn the generous tea that would be provided later, with scones and fruit cake baked by my Auntie May.
I had to sort through the trays, checking for any sign of rot or mould, making sure that the apples were not touching each other. Spoiled apples went into a special bin, the ‘cider-bin’, to be used later for making cider.
Uncle Will grew English apples, mostly Cox’s for eating and big green Bramleys for cooking. Superb baked in the oven with brown sugar, lemon juice and cloves, Bramleys made a fluffy crumble and a fine apple pie.

Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness." -- Jane Austen

Auntie May used to core and peel apples and slice them into rings which she then hung on strings in a dry, preferably sunny, place, to make chewy dried apple for winter use. She also pickled eggs, walnuts and onions, as did my grandmother. Ladgie (my grandma) also tried her hand at making ginger beer, with disastrous results – the explosion almost wrecked our stairs, under which the big stone flagons were stored in the dark to ferment and mature.
In those days too, we used to tour the countryside in late summer and early autumn, seeking out the plums and damsons and wild sloe berries that would be turned into jams and hugely alcoholic beverages.
Bitter Seville oranges would be snapped up as soon as they appeared at the greengrocer’s shop, to be turned into tangy marmalades, sometimes spiked with ginger and/or whisky.

Visits to Uncle Will and Auntie May were memorable in many ways, none more so though than the sight of a brood of chickens using an ancient Rolls-Royce as a chicken coop. Along with the old Hall, the car had fallen into decay and disuse, until the hens discovered it. Once, it must have looked like this.

I leave the rest to your imagination.

A is for Apples – and Apple Pie and Apple Cake. Recipes abound for these dishes but few call for as much patience and devotion as this one

Finished off with innumerable pastry leaves, each one fashioned individually.
When I worked in an office at Nissaki, Corfu, set beside the local church, the local cafeneion and the mini-market, the local ladies vied with each other to bring me the tastiest morsels. Our office cleaner made a mean apple cake, with roughly cut apples and a hefty pinch of cinnamon. The woman who ran the mini-market sent upside-down apple cake drenched in icing sugar  and dripping with syrup. Asked to say which was the most delicious, I felt as if I were being asked to make some mythological judgment, possibly with frightful consequences. I played it safe and declared a tie.

I was chilly with the November breeze,
and it was a courtly thing you did
draping the sweater over my shoulders,
taking care to smooth the wool
with a touch that whispered
that later you would claim the garment,
and the shiver taking it would bring
was something you coveted
with breathless avarice.

“Sweater weather,” you said.
And I am swept like a crisp oak leaf
into a duvet and down dream,
where the pillows do not speak
of the warm, the moments large and small
when I nestle near you,
demanding that arms dress me
to close kept comfort.

Arms around my waist,
legs entwined to akimbo,
and my last thought before sweet drowse
is that fall will never come
without you to chase the cold
in the season of sweater weather.

Sweater Weather by Lisa Shields


1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous Blog, sooo tranquilising, and I thought I was tranquil already, living in Corfu too.


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