Crab apples are not highly regarded by many outdoor foragers. Perhaps it is the name which makes them sound less than appetising.
Certainly, the index of a guide to gourmet foraging which resides with other cookery books on my kitchen shelf seems to confirm this point. While it offers delectables like luxurious potted crab with double cream and cayenne pepper and an apple dressing for sashimi, nowhere do the words crab and apple ever meet.
But crab apples are well worth seeking out. To me, the very name conveys the essence of the autumn hedgerow, and in my opinion you haven’t truly enjoyed roast pork and crackling or a leg of lamb without a spoonful of crab apple and rosemary jelly on the plate.
Trees laden with the fruit are actually quite hard to find in the countryside, however. The wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris) seems to have become a rarity, perhaps because so many miles of farmland hedges have been grubbed out since the Second World War.
Which is a shame because it has been a feature of the countryside for centuries, even identified as boundary features in Anglo-Saxon times, and the direct ancestor of apple varieties grown in today’s orchards.
It is often confused with apple trees known as “wildings” which have grown from the pips in the cores of discarded eating apples like cox’s pippins or braeburns. Anyone who is not sure whether they’ve found a crab apple or wilding should simply take a sample bite. Crab apples are one of the sourest fruits you will ever taste unless they are over-ripe.
There is one such wilding 10 minutes from my house, the original variety unknown, which has often contributed to my autumn chutneys. And as eating apples they are preferable to commercially cultivated varieties. But as a cooking ingredient the fruit is no substitute for proper crab apples.
I occasionally come across a true crab apple tree while out walking – most recently in a hedgerow near Ripon – but they are so rare now that foragers very wisely keep the location to themselves. Recently, I have found that one supermarket chain sells them in autumn, so there must be a commercial grower somewhere.
The apples are very small, their skins exhibiting a surprisingly wide range of colours and markings. Some look bluish-green, others yellowish-green or reddish-orange with white flecks. A bit bigger than a cherry they are generally round, although some are misshapen or “wonky”.
According to the Woodland Trust their name may have been inspired by the fact that older trees develop gnarled and twisted or “crabbed” twigs. Most foragers add them to jams or jellies because of very high pectin content. But crab apple jelly is its star culinary usage.
In folklore crab apples have traditionally been linked with love and marriage. There is an old belief that if you sprinkle the pips into a fire whilst uttering the name of the man or woman you love, if the pips pop with mini-explosions in the flames, then that love is true.