Core values

Traditional home-grown apples and pears are fighting back against exotic rivals. Mark Hix is praying for a windfall
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Indy Lifestyle Online

At last I think we're finally beginning to appreciate traditional British apples again. You see boxes of different varieties in their autumn-leaf hues of yellow, red and green displayed outside serious greengrocers and food shops, and I've started to notice those old-fashioned wooden boxes making a comeback, too. Admittedly the apples probably left the orchard in a cardboard box and were transferred to the wooden box to look attractively rustic in the shop, but I still love seeing them arranged in those sturdy pieces of farm history with the producer's name embossed on them. I came across some of these wooden boxes in a shop near London's Spitalfields Market the other day and couldn't resist buying a few.

Apple farmers have had a hard time trying to please supermarkets with shiny fruit that's all the right size and shape, as well as competing against imports. Many have had to plant new varieties that travel and keep well even though they don't taste as good as some of our more irregular-looking, traditional types of apple. I've heard horror stories about farmers having to ditch part of their crop when the apples don't look right. But now I believe things are changing for those guys as more shoppers demand real food grown on home soil, which tastes the way it should - even if it looks less than perfect.

Apple Day on Friday 21 October is a relatively new festival, but has really caught on in the past few years as a celebration of all our traditional home-grown fruit and the orchards they come from. There are more than 2,000 types of apple grown in the UK, and you won't have to look too hard to find a mix of these varieties in local markets, at food fairs and on roadside stalls.

If you know where to look - and I'm not suggesting you go scrumping - you sometimes find rare fruit ripe for the picking, for nothing. In my new neighbourhood I noticed a pavement damson tree that has now shed most of its fruit into the road. Further down the street there are medlar and crab apple trees. I gathered some of these and they were remarkably sweet and perfect for making mini canapé-size toffee apples. To find out more about apples and Apple Day check out www.commonground.org.uk.

Pear, almond and honey b'stilla

Serves 4-6

Filo pastry lends itself to sweet, sticky desserts. Even savoury Moroccan b'stilla made with wafer-thin warka pastry and pigeon is pretty sweet, as it contains lots of almonds and sugar, but it's typically Moroccan to mix sweet and savoury like that.

This is my own version of a b'stilla (or pastilla as its sometimes spelt) au lait. The original consists of layers of warka pastry, the north African version of filo, sandwiched together with a really sweet pastry cream.

I've spared you the tedious task of making the warka pastry this time, so all you have to do is assemble this like a b'stilla. If you can find warka pastry in a Middle Eastern shop buy it, if not filo pastry is easy to find.

1kg ripe pears, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
100g ground almonds
1 egg, beaten
4tbsp clear honey, preferably a perfumed honey like chestnut or lavender
60g butter, melted
4 sheets of warka, or filo pastry measuring about 25-26cm square
15g flaked almonds
1/2tbsp icing sugar

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Brush a 20cm, preferably non-stick, ovenproof pan or shallow cake tin with butter. Lay the pastry f squares in the pan at alternate angles so the corners form the points of a star, brushing each layer well with butter before laying the next on top. Give the top layer of pastry a final brush with the butter.

Mix the almonds with the egg and 3 tablespoons of the honey. Put half the pears on to the pastry and spread the almond mixture over the pears. Put the rest of the pears on top and fold the pastry into the centre, overlapping it and completely covering the pears. Brush well with butter and cook for 40 minutes. Pour the rest of the honey over the pastry, scatter on the almonds and bake for a further 10 minutes until the almonds are nicely toasted. Remove from the oven and leave to cool a little, dust with icing sugar and serve in slices with some thick cream, sweetened yoghurt, or crème fraîche.

Pan-fried skate with apples and cider

Serves 4

This may seem an odd combination, but the classic fish and poultry garnish à la Normande - meaning with apples and sometimes Calvados and cream, all of which Normandy is famous for - was once commonplace on restaurant menus. Skate lends itself to both robust and delicate flavours and the use of cider instead of wine in a creamy fish sauce gives it a new dimension. With this dish, you could even poach your skate wings in cider first.

4 skate wings weighing about 250g each, skinned and trimmed
Flour for dusting
1tbsp vegetable oil
60g butter for the sauce

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
60g butter
100ml fish stock, or half a stock cube dissolved in that amount of water
100ml dry cider
150ml double cream
1 not too sweet apple, such as Cox's, peeled, cored and finely diced
1/2tbsp chopped parsley

Season and lightly flour the skate wings. Heat the vegetable oil in a large heavy-bottomed frying pan (you may need to do this in 2 pans, or 2 batches) and fry the skate for 3-4 minutes on each side, adding butter to the pan towards the end of cooking. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, gently cook the shallots for 2-3 minutes in butter, stirring occasionally. Add the stock and cider and simmer until reduced to about a tablespoonful. Add the double cream and simmer until reduced by about half and thickened. Add the apples and parsley and simmer for a minute or so, then whisk in the butter and season. Serve the sauce separately, or poured over the fish, and with buttery mash.

Apple snow

Serves 4-6

My grandmother always used a fork to whisk up egg whites and cream; I don't remember there ever being a whisk in the house. This recipe dates to around the 17th century and back then they'd probably have used a whisk made from birch twigs bound at the top with twine. You occasionally see these old wooden whisks in museums. This was an Elizabethan favourite, made with cream and later, in the 17th century, with egg whites added and a sprig of rosemary stuck on top to resemble a snow-covered tree.

750g cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped
80g caster sugar
Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
2 egg whites
80ml double cream

Put the apples into a pan with 60g of the sugar, add the lemon rind and juice, cover and simmer for 8-10 minutes, stirring every so often until the apples are soft. Remove the lid and continue to simmer for a few minutes until the mixture is dry. Blend until smooth in a liquidiser, or with a hand blender and transfer to a bowl to cool.

Whisk the egg whites in a mixing machine with the remaining 20g of sugar until stiff. Whisk the cream separately until fairly stiff then carefully fold the cream and egg whites into the cool apple purée. Spoon into individual dishes, or one large dish and chill in the fridge for a couple of hours. Shortbread fingers are delicious with this.

Russet apple and celery soup with Stilton

Serves 4-6

A large head of leafy English celery can go a long way. Unfortunately it's usually sold trimmed so it fits in those plastic sleeves. Look out for the large leafy stuff and try the leaves in a salad, or with cheese, the hearts for salads, and the outer stalks for soups and stocks. If you keep sticks to eat with cheese, throw them into the soup pot f too when they start to curl up. This soup is a kind of cheese board in a bowl - minus the grapes. You can vary the taste depending on the type of apple, whether cooking or eating, that you use.

A good knob of butter
1 leek, roughly chopped and washed
1 small head of celery, roughly chopped and washed, leaves reserved
1.5 litres vegetable stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 russet apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
2tbsp double cream
60-80g Stilton, rind removed and cut into small chunks
1tsp celery salt

Gently cook the leek and celery in the butter for 3-4 minutes in a covered, heavy-bottomed pan, stirring every so often. Add the stock, season lightly, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the apple and simmer for a further 10 minutes, or until the apples are soft. Blend in a liquidiser until smooth and sieve out any lumps and stringy bits.

Add the cream and serve with the celery leaves torn into the soup with the chunks of Stilton and scatter with a little celery salt.

Mark Hix's latest book, 'The Simple Art of Marrying Food and Wine', co-written by Malcolm Gluck, is published by Mitchell Beazley, £20. Order for £18 plus free p&p from Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897.

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