To Make a Fine Apple Pye

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Forget cold weather and the first frosts of winter; I am already thinking about my spring garden! For years I have been yearning for space to plant a large vegetable garden and fruit trees. Now I can finally begin seriously planning such an endeavor since I recently moved into a new home with a large yard. Despite the approaching winter, I am constantly daydreaming about apples, beets, carrots, and tomatoes. The apple trees, in particular, have piqued my curiosity. There are hundreds of heirloom varietals, many of which will flourish in my planting zone. More than the standard fruits available at local markets, these heirloom ones attract me. I thought that I would use this opportunity to try growing some varietals that may have been available in late medieval or early modern England so that I can not only cook my many favorite modern apple dishes and preserves, but also prepare apple recipes from my research with period-appropriate fruit.

The art of grafting and cultivating fruit trees was acknowledged and recorded in Antiquity. Many treatises on the topic exist from the Middle Ages, such as those by Nicholas Bollard and Godfrey’s translation of a fourth-century work by Palladius. Similarly, early modern cookbooks and books of household management, like Charles Estienne’s L’agriculture et maison rustique (1564) and its English translation Maison Rustique, or the countrie farme (1600), devote sections to the topic. In late medieval and early modern England, apples were an accessible fruit for peasants and commoners. Each autumn apples ripened on trees that flourished across the English countryside. And despite the popularity of the apple, recipes rarely distinguished specific types of apples to use; in most instances, the selection of fruit was left to local availability and personal preference.

Elizabeth Blackwell, "The apple tree or pearmain," 1739, Science, Industry and Business Library: General Collection , The New York Public Library. Source: The New York Public Library
Elizabeth Blackwell, “The apple tree or pearmain,” 1739, Science, Industry and Business Library: General Collection , The New York Public Library. Source: The New York Public Library

Recipes sometimes distinguish between apples, pippins, pearmains, codlings, and others, but none of these terms refer to specific varietals. These terms do, however, tend to highlight certain flavor, texture, or keeping characteristics. Pippins, for example, are typically sweeter apples. Codlings refer to harder apples not intended to be eaten raw. Sometimes this hardness is a feature of the varietal, while other times this term refers to unripe apples. This lack of specificity in recipes is not to say that we have no record of medieval or early modern varietals. Medieval legal, religious, and household records, for example, describe specific apples.[1] It is the recipes that remain vague.

Nicolaes Maes, “Young Woman Peeling Apples,” ca. 1655, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436934. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nicolaes Maes, “Young Woman Peeling Apples,” ca. 1655, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436934.
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Most early modern recipes similarly exclude mention of apple varieties. However, a very rare instance of a recipe identifying a specific varietal occurs in a recipe book in the New York Public Library, Whitney Cookery Collection MS 2. This recipe book belonging to Lady Anne Percy in the mid-seventeenth century contains instructions for a perfume which requires the “skinn of an apple called Camveza.”[2] It is notable that this recipe is for a non-edible luxury item containing expensive ingredients such as ambergris and civet. Camuesa was a Spanish apple varietal, and while it eventually came to refer more generally to pippins, the recipe seems to refer to the more luxurious and specific fruit. The majority of recipes do not specify a variety, though details are sometimes noted. In Mrs. Murrey’s Jelly of Pippins recipe in Lady Percy’s book, the reader is instructed to “take the best white pippins.”[3] Another recipe designates the best time of year to preserve green, or unripened, pippins is “about bartholme tide,” or late August. [4] Since pippins, like apples in general, ripen at varying points throughout the late summer and fall, the date in this recipe is probably specific to Mrs. Murrey’s source of pippins. Earlier recipes for apple fritters, tarts, and sauce (applemoys) appearing in manuscripts prior to 1500 exclude any mention of varietals, or even the adjectives which color early modern apple recipes.

Limited, if any, descriptions of apple varieties appear in other texts concerned with details of fruit like gardening treatises or herbals prior to the seventeenth century. Even the aforementioned Maison Rustique, a detailed manual for growing and grafting all sorts of fruits, mentions only a few varieties, like the globe apple, apple of paradise, and choke apple. However, a concern with growing consistent, identifiable, and enhanced fruit developed throughout Europe during the sixteenth century, so that by the early 1600s, elite gardens likely contained multiple varietals of fruits. This is reflected in contemporary texts: herbalists and botanists listed and described a wealth of varietals (like the sixty apple varieties in John Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris) and the occasional recipe from an elite household with access to many varietals, like the Percys, actually specified types to incorporate in recipes.[5] Named varietals at this time seem to point toward social status, though the many other recipes which indicate descriptions of texture, firmness, or size, reflect a more general concern with taste.

This apple ambiguity is ultimately a good thing, both for a cook trying to replicate a historic recipe and me, in planning a small, historically-oriented home orchard. For one, the lack of specificity does encourage the modern cook, like the original cooks, to use the apples we have on hand and are pleasing to our taste. Second, while many apple varietals are available today, only a handful available in the United States can be traced back several centuries. One American heirloom fruit tree vendor boasts twelve varietals dated before 1700; this includes fruits originally cultivated in England, France, Switzerland, Denmark, two American colonies, and one more vaguely attributed to “Europe.” It is difficult, if not impossible, to recreate any kind of “authentic” apple experience. While I may not be able to recapture any specific ingredients from historic recipes, I am excited to cultivate some new-to-me varietals in my own garden and experience some flavors from many centuries ago.

In case anyone still has apples in storage from a fall orchard picking, or you just want to plan ahead for next year’s crop, I leave you with a recipe from Lady Morton’s 1693 recipe book. [6]

To Make a Fine Apple Pye

Take 19 or 20 large codlings or pippings. Coddle them very soft over a slow fire. When enough squeeze them through a cullender. Put to it six eggs, half the whites beaten and strain’d, 6 ounces of butter melted, half a pound of fine sugar, the juice & rind but small of 2 lemons, one ounce and half of banded orange peele, half an ounce of banded lemon peel. Cut small, mix all these together, & put in a little orange flower water to your tast. Bake it in puft paste in a dish.

 

 

[1] Christopher M. Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200–1500 (Yale University Press, 2016), 106–7.

[2] New York, New York Public Library, Whitney MS 2, 85.

[3] Whitney MS 2, 23.

[4] Whitney MS 2, 39.

[5] John Parkinson, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (London: Humfrey Lownes and Robert Young, 1629), 587–8.

[6] New York, New York Public Library, Whitney MS 4, 150.

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