While ‘an apple a day’ has been keeping doctors away since the origin of the proverb in 1860s Wales, apples have a rich history in culture, medicine, and cooking that spans across the world and over thousands of years. Originating in Kazakhstan, apples now come in over 7,500 varieties, or cultivars, most of which can be traced back to their original parents!
Faiths and Cultures:
Apples have appeared in folklore for thousands of years, and have been symbolic of fertility, peace, and wealth across cultures. In Ancient Greece, apples were associated with proposals and marriage, while the Norse believed that apples spoke of youth and immortality kept the gods youthful. This was also a belief in Irish folklore, where 4 golden apples were stolen from the Garden of Hesperides by the sons of Tuireann. In Scottish folklore, on Halloween unmarried women would eat an apple in front of a mirror, believing that the face of their future husbands would appear looking over their shoulder.
While apples are commonly attributed as the forbidden fruit in the Bible story of the Garden of Eden, they are not actually mentioned by name! However, this association may have happened due to a mistranslation from Hebrew to Latin, where ‘malum’, meaning either hardship and pain or an apple tree, was used to translate ‘the tree of knowledge of good and evil’.
In Greek Orthodox tradition, it was believed that by eating pieces of the Apple of St Irene Chrysovalantou women would fall pregnant. This tradition is still practiced today, and apples are blessed by the church on St Irene’s Feast Day, June 28th, and given out throughout the year.
Apples also play an important symbolic role in Rosh Hashanah, the first two of the ten High Holy Days, which celebrates Jewish New Year. On Rosh Hashanah, sweet foods are eaten to symbolise wanting a sweet new year ahead. Specifically apples dipped in honey represent the request for this alongside alluding to their presence in the Garden of Eden. Once dipped, the apples are followed with a prayer and then eaten - a favourite of Jewish children and adults the world-over!
Medicinally, apples have been used to treat many diseases, especially infertility, by the Celts and Norse. Modern research has also shown some medicinal benefits of eating apples, with some studies linked apple consumption to reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, asthma, and some forms of cancer. Studies relating apple consumption to breast cancer have shown a particular effect, which may be due to the presence of phenols (chemical compounds commonly found in edible plants), although research is still being conducted in these areas.
Apples also contain B vitamins, which help maintain the health of red blood cells, as well as dietary fiber, which can help prevent high cholesterol, and quercetin, a kind of phenol also present in edible plants such as red onions, that has been found to reduce cellular death.
However, apple seeds contain cyanide so consuming large quantities may be unsafe. Apples are also acidic, and can potentially cause more damage to teeth than soft drink. This can be avoided by eating apples with larger meals.
As a rich source of vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and dietary fiber, apples are great as part of a healthy diet and can be used in a wide range of recipes. However, apple varieties can generally be sorted into three categories for eating: cooking apples, dessert apples, and cider apples. Cooking apples tend to have a tarter taste than dessert apples, which makes them perfect for sauces accompanying roast meats and vegetables, jams, or simply baked with cinnamon. Cooking apple varieties include Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples, which originated in Australia in 1868.
Dessert apples are generally eaten raw and can be used in salads, fruit platters, and even sandwiches. They tend to taste sweeter than cooking and cider varieties, and include Fuji, Red Delicious, and Gala varieties. However, some cooking apples can also be eaten raw, and a combination of dessert and cooking apples can be used for pies and cakes (like in this delicious Upside Down Apple Cake). Cider apples, in comparison, are drier and more bitter in taste, and varieties include Brown Snout and Bulmer’s Norman.
Looking to try something new with apples? Have a look at some of these recipes:
Apple trees grow best in temperate regions, preferring a cool climate, lots of sun, and a well-drained and fertile soil. They come in a wide range of varieties, including dwarf and full-sized trees, that grow up to 4m and 8m respectively, and can even be used as screening.
Apples also have lots of companion plants that attract pollinators, help prevent diseases, and deter pests, such as daffodils, onions, basil, and other fragrant herbs. However, they will suffer if planted near potatoes.
Enjoy your apples and happy growing, cooking and eating!