Of all the fruits that feature most in my life, the humble apple seems to be there again and again. Perhaps the earliest memory was sneaking a bite from a crisp Granny Smith apple my grandmother had cored and hung around my brother’s neck as a teething aid. Being a substantial few years his senior, I set upon a skillful demonstration of the task at hand; square milk teeth baring down upon its curved milky white flesh; successfully rendering an impressive bite in the fabled forbidden fruit.
Tart tangy juice filled my mouth, anointing it with the indelible imprint of first taste and its pure lemony aroma enveloped us as I pulled exaggerated chewing faces that made him giggle with delight.
I also remember the panic that ensued after I’d strategically left the room; my grandmother frantically trying to dislodge the mysteriously absent chunk from his gummy grimace.
Years later, it was to be apples that adorned my wedding table one warm March day when I wed the son of an orchardist and celebrated in a white marquee south of Sydney, amidst autumn fields of blushing Pink Ladies. And, it was this same orchardist’s son that took me and our three children hiking on the slopes of the Tian Shan mountains in Kazakhstan, where the oldest known species of apple, Malus Sieversii, hugs the rocky slopes along the ancient Great Silk Road.
Apples are something the Kazakhs hold dear. The former capital, Almaty, or Alma-Ata in Kazakh, means ‘father of apples’ and in true Central Asian style, you’ll find gaudy red statues and gilded apples all over the city. Although the Kazakhs were always convinced of their rightful claim, the fatherland of apples was only given true paternal legitimacy in 2010, when an Italian research team sequenced the complete genome, proving once and for all that Malus Sieversii was indeed the original apple from which today’s 3000 known varieties have sprung.
As with any good story, it wasn’t without a little help from a few camels, some wandering salesmen and a marauding emperor or two. Portable and nutritious, it was the perfect fast food for merchants traveling the Silk Road. Discarded apple cores produced other wild apples along the way, which in turn were spread by birds, camels, and horses. With the help of Alexander the Great, it traveled from Persia to Greece, where they discovered how to graft new varieties. The Greeks then introduced the apple to the Romans, and with a little assistance from the vikings, it spread. And spread. The truth is, if apple pie is the yardstick for measuring national authenticity in the US, there’s a little more Kazakh in every American than Don McLean might have realised.
My husband and I moved to Almaty in 2014, although my stay was more sporadic than his. I split my time between visits to the children at boarding school in the UK and later, our house in France; to camp amidst the rubble of renovation and ambitiously steer it towards completion.
When I returned to Almaty there was less to do. I’d ski, hike, cook and shop at the Zelyoni Bazaar; a central fresh food market housed beneath an austere Soviet hanger fringed with street vendors selling soon to be landfill. Grey concrete floors and cold blue steel isles carved out rows amidst mosaic patterned displays of nuts and glistening dried fruits, pyramid stacked piles of shiny red apples and whole chickens prepared for sale under the blue glow of a butane torch; menacingly spun through the air in a circle by their feet; the flame ferociously searing any last feathers and bacteria from their yellow unbleached skin.There were plastic buckets of pickles, sacks of floral tea and a dedicated aisle for the national specialty, horse meat. But it was the apples I went there for; deep red on the outside and the purest white on the inside. They tasted like raspberries and honey and I ate them for breakfast with fresh walnuts and creamy tvorak, Russian cottage cheese.
It’s been just over two years since we purchased our petit chateau in South Western France. Although we didn’t realise it at the time, the garden included a rather modest abandoned orchard in the bottom field, somewhat unsurprisingly, solely dedicated to apples. Like me, they came to France via Kazakhstan, but sadly, their gnarled branches bare no record of their heirloom varieties, though they seem to be a decisive mixture of eating and cooking apples.
Despite being in dire need of pruning, they’ve produced another impressive crop this year. As with anything in vast supply, the challenge is conjuring up as many uses for them as possible before they spoil. More so, finding the time to do it.
This recipe, like the apples in my life, is a constant. I think I’ve cooked it more than any other cake, and for good reason. It’s deliciously moist, buttery and fragrant with the same spices that made their way to Europe via the Silk Road. Best of all, it’s ridiculously easy and very quick to make.