Sat, Jan 06, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Ian’s Table: An apple a day?

No need to restrict yourself to just one; apples can play a big part in all kinds of sweet and savory dishes

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Hot apple crumble is perfect with ice cream.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

The apple is one of the best known fruits, eaten around the world. Its most famous varieties hail from western Europe and North America, but apples are grown in all sorts of unlikely places as well. Taiwan also has small scale apple cultivation at orchards along the uplands of the Central Mountain Range, most famously from Lishan (梨山), but these are harder to acquire than imported varieties that are available at every supermarket.

According to Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food, there are between 7,000 and 8,000 named varieties of apple, although only a very small number are cultivated on a commercial basis. Each country has it own preferred varieties, and in Taiwan the Japanese varieties such as Fuji and Mutsu hold reign, along with the American variety Delicious. The last is one of the most commonly available supermarket varieties, but its name is rather inappropriate as this apple tends to be a little insipid, lacking either tartness or sweetness in sufficient quantities to produce a notable eating experience.

Taiwan also has its own varieties, often referred to as “honey apples” (蜜蘋果). These are very small in size, often no larger than an apricot. They make good eating apples, particularly since they are unwaxed, and although their skin is often an unattractive mottling of red, yellow and green, their flavor is really quite good. They are suitable both for eating and cooking.

Apples are not new to Chinese gastronomy, and Davidson suggests that apples were grown in China as far back as 1,000 years ago, possibly introduced from Central Asia. Despite its long presence on the Chinese scene, apples have never managed to rival the status of the pear, which has a much more established place in Chinese culture and commands considerably higher prices.

The apples from Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range seem to be made up of a variety of types that are not always clearly differentiated. The famous “honey apple” has an intense sweetness and mottled flesh where the superabundance of sugar has reached saturation. Other types are closer to the wild crab apple, with a large and well-developed core and less flesh, but having a tart and refreshing flavor.

The large space given over to the seeds suggests a closer relationship to wild apples, and Davidson points out that most modern apples, with their thick layer of flesh surrounding a tiny seedbox are the result of careful cultivation. The apples we most often eat are very much created through the ingenuity of mankind rather than a simple harvesting of nature’s bounty. Not that this makes them any the worse for eating, but when using them in the kitchen it is worth noting their different qualities.

The British make a distinction between eating and cooking apples, and while this is only a vague reference, one should be aware that some apples break up more easily when cooked, while others hold their shape. The former are good for purees and sauces, while the later are superior for French style apple tarts where you want the fruit to look pretty. In many instances, the type of apples does not make much difference as long as you like its flavor.

While apples are most often used in desserts, nothing being more iconic than the American apple pie, it has long been used in savory dishes as well. The mixture works particularly well with tart apples, and the combination of fatty pork and apples is referenced in Apicius, a culinary text from the Roman empire. Roast pork with apple sauce is a festive staple and it is fun to experiment with different kinds of apple in making this dish.

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