Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of the wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again...
Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee
I found myself in an orchard last week. Lean, whose beautiful photos fill my books, was visiting, and we took a winding drive up through the Cotswolds in pursuit of some lovely autumn scenery. Hidcote is almost certainly stunning at any time of year - the ten or so acres of garden are filled with flowers and ponds and well-worn paths. But on this first slightly cooler week, with the leaves starting to blush at the edges, it was a particular joy.
We spent a couple of hours making our way through it, stopping for a game of tennis with some ancient racquets (turns out I am not one of life’s tennis naturals), and a thermos of tea and some scones on a bench. We walked up and down the kitchen garden, watching the bees buzz around the garlic flowers, and wove a path between the apple trees in the orchard. In these early weeks of September, they were especially beautiful: heavy with russet coloured fruit, very nearly ripe for picking.
As a child in Australia, I was underwhelmed by apples. That’s not to say there weren’t good ones on offer - we had some delicious, crisp varieties from Stanthorpe - but the truth is that I would always rather have been eating a Bowen mango, or a slice of watermelon, or a ripe, fragrant fig. Apples spoke of sweaty school lunchboxes, of afternoon choir rehearsals: reliable, dependable, and inevitable, but not particularly special.
But I live in Gloucestershire now, in Laurie Lee country, and the apples here are something else. They make sense in England in a way they didn’t in Brisbane - perhaps because I rarely eat them bruised from a lunchbox, but more likely because they feel like the platonic ideal thing to eat on a crisp English autumn day. The apples on the market this weekend, so much more diverse in flavour and colour than the Jazz and Pink Lady varieties on the supermarket shelves, are a joy to behold - if you can, do try and lay your hands on an Ashmead’s Kernel, or a Pitmaston Pineapple. And in the meantime, here’s a perfect autumn apple cake, made with varieties you can likely get in your corner shop.
Apple and Tarragon Cake
2 large cooking apples, like Bramleys
150g light brown sugar
150g ground almonds
2tsp baking powder
100g plain flour
1tbsp finely chopped tarragon leaves
A pinch of salt
1 crisp eating apple, sliced very finely through the core
A pinch of light brown sugar
20cm round cake tin
1. Preheat the oven to 150C fan. Grease and line the cake tin. Peel and core the cooking apples, chop into chunks, and place in a small saucepan with a splash of water. Bring to a simmer over a low heat, and cook until the apples break down.
2. Meanwhile, beat the butter and sugar until light and creamy. Whisk the eggs into the mix, one at a time, and then fold in the almonds, baking powder, flour, tarragon, and the cooled apples.
3. Spoon the batter into the cake tin, then arrange the slices of eating apple over the top, and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for an hour and a half, until the cake is risen and golden brown, and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
4. Cool in the cake tin for 10 minutes, and then on a rack. Serve still warm, or at room temperature, with a spoonful of sour cream.