With Halloween around the corner, the popular tradition of apple bobbing has been on my mind.
Apparently, England has had a bumper crop of apples this year, so there will be plenty left for this ancient custom. My friends and family have been cooking away, filling the table with “apple crumbles” (a combination of what Americans would describe as a crisp and a cobbler) and baking other sweet recipes.
However, just like in America, the apple pie reigns supreme in the kingdom of apple desserts.
There are differences between most British and American recipes for this delicious treat, the biggest of which is that Americans usually add cinnamon whereas the British often bake it with raisins and use less sugar. In the United States, of course, apple pie often is served a la mode with a scoop of ice cream (usually vanilla) on top, while hot custard or thick double cream is more traditional in the United Kingdom.
The history of the expression “a la mode,” which in French means “according to the fashion” or “in the style,” generally is attributed to Professor Charles Watson Townsend, who regularly dined at the Cambridge Hotel in New York during the 1890s. He often ordered ice cream with his apple pie, and combined them onto one plate. Mrs. Berry Hall, a diner seated next to him, asked what it was called, and when he told her that it didn’t have a name, she promptly dubbed it pie a la mode and its fame spread throughout the state.
When this story appeared in the New York Sun newspaper, the description became nationally known and is widely used to this day.
While the expression “as American as apple pie” is famous around the world, it actually is the case that British and other northern Europeans brought apples and apple pie as we would recognize it today to the New World. However, the apple’s story begins long before.
Legend states that the wild ancestor of today’s apples grew on the slopes of the “Heavenly Mountains” bordering western China during Roman times.
The Romans brought this sweet luxury fruit to British shores when they occupied ancient Britain 2,000 years ago, and also brought expertise in the art of grafting — a skill that the Europeans took to North America many centuries later.
A combination of native English tart crab apples and the Roman imports led to significant apple cultivation in the British Isles, but apples fell out of favor once the Romans left 400 years later. The tradition of apple-growing was maintained primarily by monks who kept the apple orchards going into medieval times. This juicy fruit did not become popular again until the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century with the introduction of new varieties such as French pippins.
By 1590, English dramatist and poet Robert Green could think of no greater compliment in praise of a lovely lady, when he wrote in “Arcadia,” “Thy breath is like the steame of apple-pyes.”
The golden age of the British apple is considered to be during Queen Victoria’s reign in the 19th century, but British apple cultivation sadly declined during the second half of the 20th century when imports began to take over and more than two-thirds of British orchards disappeared. There has been a renaissance in recent years as traditional British apples have become more popular, especially the crisp Bramley apple. The Bramley apple is prized for its excellence in cooking, which brings us full circle back to apple pie.
I will leave you with a thought-provoking quote from American astronomer and author Carl Sagan: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Yes, Mr. Sagan, but good Bramley apples also help.
God bless America!
Email Francis at email@example.com or go to her website, www.lesleyfrancispr.com.