I often tuck a couple of apples around a pork roast. They fluff up like a soufflé and emerge with a big white grin on their faces that makes them seem so much more than just a lazy man's apple sauce.
When my little garden was first ready for planting, I hankered after an apple tree or two. Not a Bramley, whose fruit is an easy buy at any time of year, but an apple whose flashes of orange and russet glowing among the dark green leaves might be visible from the kitchen; an apple whose flesh would soften tenderly in a tart rather than puffing up to an over-excited froth. So I went in search of the Bénédictin apple that crops up in French monastery gardens, the preferred variety for tarte tatin, cooking softly but keeping its shape. As it turns out, this is simply the French name for the Blenheim Orange. I now long to taste the fruit of my three-year-old tree. Despite sporting clouds of pink-edged white blossom, it has yet to bear fruit.
Never mind - the farmers' markets are full of locally grown fruit just now, and you'll find everything from the juicy, aromatic Jupiter to the early Flanders Cox.
Apart from the nutty Egremont Russets, which I am happy to eat as they come, many of the apples I buy end up in the kitchen. I came across a Peasgood Nonesuch for the first time last week. Apart from sounding as if it attended Eton (or Ampleforth, whose school grounds boast a world-famous orchard), it is sweet and delicate, though inclined to suffer from a little mildew. When cooked, mine came up a treat, the same froth as a Bramley but sweeter and less acidic.
Most cooks agree with me that a Bramley is a fine, sweet-sharp baking apple and that a Cox is better left for the table, but there are so many others worthy of attention. Dividing apples into 'eaters' and 'cookers' is a wasted opportunity, as anyone who has dared to cook a russet will know. All its deep nuttiness comes to the fore. Some apples keep their shape, others billow And puff. Others still turn grainy. I can recommend Blenheim Orange and good old Granny Smith, both of which cook to perfection without collapsing; just what you need for an apple tart.
Fruit that holds its shape in open tarts and cook to a firm purée includes all russets, Belle de Tours, Betty Geeson and James Grieve. Those that cook to a fluff include the Bramley, Charlotte and Brown's Seedling. You can also divide apples into varieties that have a hint of lemon (Lemon Pippin) or spice (D'Arcy Spice), or those that are nutty or taste of flowers (Kidd's Orange Red). If your local shops only come up with the depressing Washington Red, you might like to join in this week's Apple Day celebrations at farm shops, markets and orchards. Try www.commonground.org.uk for local information.
During the past year, I have had two dreams to do with apples: one was about buying next door's abandoned garden and turning it into an orchard of long-forgotten fruit varieties. In the other, I acquired a copy of Joan Morgan and Alison Richards' classic The Book of Apples . The latter has come true, with Ebury Press republishing this as The New Book of Apples (£35), updated and illustrated with Elisabeth Dowles's beautiful colour plates. With its painstakingly researched history and spot-on tasting notes, this book is invaluable to anyone who loves the crunch of a fine apple. My urban orchard, though, remains a dream.
Apple tart with cinammon almond crumble
For the muscovado pastry:
190g plain flour
50g light muscovado sugar
2 egg yolks
For the filling:
900g Bramley or other sharp apples
100g blackberries or blueberries
For the crumble:
90g plain flour
100g demerara sugar
a knife-point of cinnamon
50g flaked almonds
You will also need a 23-25cm metal tart tin with a removable base
For the pastry, cut the butter into small pieces and put into a food processor with the flour, then blitz till it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and the egg yolks and blend briefly. Tip everything into a large bowl and bring together into a smooth dough. Roll or pat into a Swiss-roll shape.
Lightly butter the tart tin. Slice the dough thinly into rounds and place in the tart case and up its sides. Trim any over-hanging pastry and put the tart case in the fridge for 20 minutes to rest. Set the oven to 200 C/Gas 6.
Meanwhile, make the crumble by putting the butter and flour into the food processor, then blitz to coarse crumbs. Stir in the sugar and cinnamon and blitz briefly. Stir in the almonds, but don't switch on the machine.
Peel the apples, then core and slice them thinly. Drop the slices into water with a little lemon juice to keep them white, then put them into a deep pan with 2 tablespoons of water over a moderate heat. Cover with a lid and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes until the apples soften. When they are ready, stir in the berries.
Bake the tart case in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes until pale gold and dry to the touch. Remove and let it cool slightly before you add the drained apples and berries. Tip the crumble mixture on top and bake for 35-40 minutes, reducing the temperature to 190 C/gas mark 5 after 5 minutes.
Leave the tart to calm down before removing the outer flan ring. Leave on its base and serve warm with ice cream or softly whipped cream. Serves 8.
Pot-roast guinea fowl with sausage and apples
1 guinea fowl
2 medium onions
a thin slice of butter
2 tbsps olive oil
4 thick butcher's sausages
2 medium-sized potatoes
3 medium apples, about 600g
a couple of bay leaves
Heat the oven to 200 C/gas mark 6. Peel the onions and cut them in half, then slice into thick segments. Put them in a large, heavy ovenproof pan - one to which you have a lid - with the butter and olive oil and colour over a moderate heat. Slice the sausages into three pieces and add to the pan, stirring from time to time.
Peel the potatoes, cut into large chunks, then add to the pan. Cook until the onions are soft and golden, the potatoes pale gold and the sausages have coloured nicely. Push everything to one side of the pan, put in the bird, breast-side down, and colour briefly, then turn to colour the rest of it.
Peel and core the apples and cut into thick chunks. Drop them in with the other ingredients, then season with the bay leaves, some salt and ground black pepper. Tip in the brandy and leave to bubble for a minute or two. Cover and put in the oven.
After 40 minutes, remove the lid. Check that the fowl is ready by inserting a skewer deep into its thigh. If there is any sign of blood, put it back in the oven for a few more minutes. Serves 2-3.