It is just about spring in tropical south-east Queensland and my apple tree is in blossom.
I am more than a little confused about what sort of apples were available in seventh-century Britain. Ann Hagen, in her book on Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink (Anglo-Saxon books, 2006) has argued that several different types of apple were known in A-S England. The leech books (see my earlier post on leech books for references) mention sour apples, crab apples, sweet apples, wood apples and green apples, or they do if Cockayne’s translation is to be trusted. However, I am sure that I have read elsewhere that recognisable eating apples only arrived after the Norman conquest.
The issue is the amount of sugar in the apple. Crab apples (Malus sylvestris), if I understand correctly, are a British native, but very sour. I recall biting into one as a child. I only did it once. Eating apples (Malus domestica) come from Central Asia/Eastern Turkey.
So, when making cider, without the addition of any sugar, what sort of apples would have worked? This is important because Ann Hagen and others are now arguing that the ‘beor’ that features in so many descriptions of feasts was not beer but cider. The argument is complex and based partly on what Latin words for drinks are glossed with the word ‘beor’ (mainly sweet, honey-based drinks) and how strong it seems to be (very strong and drunk from small cups). Cider can be up to 18% alcohol, compared with about 5% for ale, 10% for mead and 12% for wine. But of course, that depends on the amount of sugar available in the apples to be converted to alcohol by the yeast. Ann Hagen argues, convincingly, I think, that ‘beor’ was sweet, because in recipes in the leechbooks it is hardly ever sweetened, compared to similar recipes where the herbs are mixed in wine, ale or skim milk.
To me, apples are the iconic fruit of my British childhood and I cannot imagine the country without them. The tree has almost a spiritual significance, which is why I go to the trouble of growing one in my Queensland garden. It is a self-pollinating variety that seems to stand up to the climate very well, but I only grow it for the blossom. The apples are perfectly edible and very pretty. They are almost square in cross-section, but they are very small – bite-sized, and I leave them for the many other people who live in my garden (birds, possums, fruit-bats).
If there is anybody out there who can help, either with information on making cider with sour apples, or on whether sweet apples had arrived in Britain by the seventh century, I’d love to hear from you.