Ever since Adam's downfall in the Garden of Eden, the apple has been a potent symbol of sex and sin. Frank Browning peels away the mysteries and myths of this humble fruit
I was raised surrounded by apples. My earliest visual memory is of the swaying limbs atop a row of Golden Delicious trees. It was summertime and the Kentucky sky hung hot behind those high twigs, their leaves leathery- green on top, soft as down underneath. Rows of Goldens stood next to a dirt road that separated the orchard from our front yard. Beyond the top row an acre of apple trees marched down the slope toward the gravel highway, the ground beneath them blanketed by rye and rescue and orchard grass, Queen Anne's lace, orange milkweed, and buttercups. The apples, little bigger than shooter marbles, played hide-and-seek with a child's eyes unless, on a June afternoon, a late thunder shower drenched them and the last golden sunlight showed them off like Christmas baubles. They were in that way both ordinary and magical, as common as toast, as elusive as dreams.

Not until adolescence, when I began to accumulate the images of English and American poets (Yeats' "silver apples of the moon ... golden apples of the sun" and Millay in her moist earth listening for "drenched and dripping apple trees") did I learn how widespread were the lures and mysteries of the apple. Apples were simply the family trade. A bad apple crop meant the car wouldn't get non-essential repairs and my mother wouldn't make her annual trip to New York to visit her sister. Pedestrian stuff. At the same time, our crop set us apart from the tobacco growers and dairymen who made up most of the county's farmers. We, and the other apple grower one ridge away, were somehow a touch strange and ever so slightly suspect.

It seemed to have to do with pleasure. No one else in our part of the world grew anything for money that gave so much plain delight. The annual act of taking the first apple, roundish, blushed with crimson, the flesh beneath its skin firm and sturdy and ready to explode upon the tongue, announced by a fragrance so clear and subtle that the memory centres deep within the brain let loose an avalanche of nearly forgotten summer tastes, memories that are themselves inseparable from the expectations of eager youth - this plain act of snapping the fruit from the branch or lifting it from a wooden crate and drawing it up toward the ready mouth was an affirmation of the senses. To eat into the apple, to press the edge of the teeth past the taut unwilling skin into ready white meat to feel the spray of tart and honeyed juices rain down against the tongue and wash over the palate, was to know again how exquisite are the treasures of the ordinary earth. Apple season - not the apples of summer best left for sauce pots and jelly jars, but the apples that fall in September and October, when the sun is sliding south - is the time for harvest mischief. It is the time of last temptation before the cold and darkness, and the growers are the agents of temptation.

You understood about apples and temptation when the preachers arrived Sunday afternoons. Along with hundreds of other country and city people, they would rattle up the rutted mountain road to our orchard. Like everyone else, they and their families would park under oak trees, get out of their cars, and amble into our dirt-floor sales shed. No matter how full the outside air was with dust and goldenrod pollen, inside the shed the perfume of fresh apples was overwhelming. "Whew, shore does smell like apples, don't it!" they'd say, and add, "Lands'a mercy. Never saw so many apples!" even though they had been walking into the same sales shed, buying the same varieties for 20 years. Wood-slatted bushel crates of apples were stacked four high and three deep: Jonathans, Cortlands, Grimes Goldens, Golden and Red Delicious, Winesaps, Rome Beauties, and even rare old apples called Winter Bananas, Black Twigs, and King Davids. Each variety was marked with the apple's name and price.

The preachers would walk in after church to choose their apples.

The ordinary apple customers would mill about for 15 or 20 minutes, sniffing, punching, peeling, slicing the fruit, make their selections, and carry their bounty off to their cars and pick-ups. The preachers would do the same thing, up to the point of purchase. But because it was Sunday, they would ask us to set their apples aside. Then they would return Monday to pick them up and pay us.

A few years ago, when my brother and I took over the farm, we began to press cider. Cider is a misnomer in America. Cider, as the English or the French or the Spanish or even our Colonial ancestors knew is, properly speaking, a fermented drink. But since real cider all but disappeared in America a hundred years ago, the word has been given to fresh, whole apple juice.

Our entry into cider making taught us even more about apples and temptation. When we started out, no one in 50 miles had made cider for decades. It wasn't part of the diet. The only apple juice our customers knew was the denatured yellow liquid produced by industrial juice bottlers and served to children in school lunch-rooms. Yet when we told them we had cider, and offered them a sample cup, a sinner's smile would often spread across their faces. "You better be able to drive," the wives told their husbands. Our orchard is in a dry county where Prohibition has remained in effect since the Depression. But the memory of moonshine is strong.

Our county and the county just east of us were two of the best white- lightning spots in Kentucky all the way through Prohibition. Bars and nightclubs in Covington and Newport, down on the Ohio River across from Cincinnati, were among the nation's biggest moonshine consumers. Even into the Seventies and Eighties. Mostly their patrons wanted sour mash or corn liquor. But a good many had a taste for applejack, which our respectable customers understood was just a few days down the fermentation trail from the fresh, vitamin-packed whole juice we drew from a spigot in our converted milk cooler.

One of our neighbours - he lived only four or five miles away - was Asa Muse. Asa was the last of the county's great moonshiners.

Asa's grandfather, FT Muse, had prospered all through the Depression on applejack and corn whiskey. FT grew corn, much of which he ground and turned into sour mash, and he tended an 18-acre apple orchard. Half his apples went into the big copper still that he kept up on the southern tip of Pea Ridge, above his house. Red Delicious, Asa told me, made the best applejack.

Asa had already retired when he told me about his moonshining and about how when he was 14 his grandfather sent him up the hill into the woods with a .38 special and told him to shoot anybody who came around. Asa made a lot of money, he said, in the applejack and moonshine trade - maybe a quarter- million dollars, a quarter of which he'd tucked away (but not in a bank). He'd never gone to jail, though he was tried three times.

Asa's great-grandfather had hauled his family over the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia and been awarded a 20,000-acre land grant early in the 19th century. They had fought Indians, cleared ground, and established a mill to grind corn. From the beginning, Asa said, the family had a knack for making liquor. As profitable as it was, though, and as much land as they held, it all seemed to slip away - so that by the time I was growing up, the name Muse carried the sweet-sour fragrance of wildness and decay.

Our apple orchard was three or four miles from the site of the old Muse orchard. We never cooked up any applejack, and I was well into middle age by the time I met Asa. Yet I always felt an odd connection with the Muses. While we were regarded as respectable, educated, and, in local terms, prosperous and they were the raucous mountain men (nobody ever spoke of the Muse women) who got everybody drunk on Saturday night, both the Brownings and the Muses were tainted by their association with forbidden fruit.

Though others might violate the Sabbath by spending their money, theirs was a minor sin, and an easily forgivable one. But as the people who had planted the trees, harvested the fruit, and then offered it, we were the authors of their temptation. We Brownings were seen as never too far from sin. Even the children who brought apples to school in their lunch boxes were somewhat suspicious.

I certainly understood that in the Department of Sin and Temptation we were not in the same league as the Muse boys with their moonshine skills. Nonetheless, I've always been sure that we were somehow kindred spirits. As a child, I never knew that they too grew apples and cooked applejack. A half century would pass before I learnt those stories and began to experiment with making my own apple brandy. The kinship I sensed had more to do with finding the dangerous magic in ordinary things. Just as there was fire in the cornstalk, so there was magic beneath the skin of that insufferably wholesome apple.

"I suppose you're about to leave for God's country," Jim Cummins' recorded voice said on my Brooklyn answering machine. "I'll try you there in a couple of days." Cummins is a scientist, an apple rootstock specialist, and, in his own words, a man of prayer. The idea of God's country is, to him, deeply internal and private and, at the same time, magnificently concrete. He spent most of his life at the Cornell University research station in Geneva, New York, unravelling the genetic mysteries of God's apple trees, then breeding and refashioning them into a human reconstruction that would be more useful and beneficial to a present-day agricultural Paradise. Not long ago he and his son, Steve, opened a speciality nursery, and they were grafting several hundred experimental cider-variety trees for our orchard in Kentucky.

By "God's country", he meant our ridge top in Kentucky. Not that Kentucky was exactly his Paradise. But Cummins had soon figured out that my apple obsession was not solely about turning apples into income. I find in apples an inexplicable mystery. When I walk through the orchard, even in my most disconsolate moods, I feel a diffuse dream-stealing magic.

I found Jim Cummins through the apple germ-plasm repository in Geneva. I wanted to test a broad selection of English and French cider varieties, and the repository, with its 3,700 different apples, was about the only place to find them in North America. Cummins understood that, beyond nostalgia, we would be recreating in Kentucky our own particular God's country, our own modest Paradise in the Appalachian hills.

Paradise, of course, is the peculiar provenance of apples.

Whether among the Greeks, the Celts, the Persians, or the Christians the apple has an ancient entanglement with Paradise, with the idea of God's country. Most modern Christians have grown up supposing that it was the apple that Eve snatched for Adam at the serpent's bidding, forever banishing them from Paradise. Although apples may have grown in Palestine at the time the biblical texts were written (Ramses II apparently received a gift shipment of apple trees from Palestine in the 13th century BC), no one thought to hang them on the tree of knowledge of good and evil until the 4th or 5th century AD, when apple trees began appearing in woodcuts and ecclesiastical drawings. The Eastern Church favoured figs as the forbidden fruit, while others in the Roman Church argued for the grape. Apples, however, do recur repeatedly in early visions of Paradise throughout the Indo-European world, and possession of them almost always has to do with desire, fecundity, and the reward of immortality.

In the earliest creation stories, particular gods were thought to inhabit particular plants and thereby to bring pleasure, poison and deliverance to the creatures who ate them. To these small, short-lived, earth-scratching people, trees were possessed by the most powerful plant gods. By the arrival of the Hebrew and Greek eras, the deities had left the plant world and become sky gods who resided in a Paradise that mortals could only imagine. Even so, certain trees were tied to ideas of Paradise nearly into the modern era.

The word "Paradise" derives from the Persian pairidaeza, a contraction of pairi (around) and daeza (wall), used by Cyrus the Younger (424-401BC) to describe his walled fruit gardens. Greek and Latin warriors and writers, enamoured of these beautiful fruit gardens, brought them and their name west, and finally the word emerged in Middle English as paradis.

Access to the fruit of immortality permeates all the Indo-European myths from the Middle East to the far Nordic reaches, and the farther north we go, the more that immortal fruit takes the shape of an apple. Retrace the paths of the Mongol traders, west from Alma-Ata to the Baltic and Mediterranean, and the reason seems simple. Apples grow everywhere. The apple is the universal fruit of the Aryan, Germanic, and Celtic worlds. Still the apple presents a mystery that has long puzzled anthropologists, folklorists, students of ancient myth, and even contemporary genetic sleuths. How is it that Norse Odinists, Greek and Roman pagans, Judeo-Christian monotheists, and Indian Vedantics bear such remarkable inter-reflections about the sacred tree and its fruit? The gods and the myths persist even as they change their names and the trees with which they are linked. Oaks become laurels. Oranges become apples and apples become pomegranates.

But as we peel apart the gods and their sacred fruits, we find shadows and antecedents that sweep across the continents and the millennia. Did the Greeks steal from the Norse or the Norse from the Romans? Was the sacred fruit of the Roman Apollo the same as the sacred fruit of the Greek Apollo, whose name, after all, is neither Greek nor Roman? Were the evil, mortal giants of Crete kinsmen to the evil giants of Germania, and did their evil schemes to steal forbidden fruit shape the much later Christian story of the stolen fruit?

Among the Greeks the golden apples of immortality grew in an orchard hidden on Mount Atlas beyond the ocean at the end of the world, most likely the Canary Islands. They were protected by the three nymph daughters of Atlas from great giants who sought to steal them. Simple possession of the apples guaranteed immortality, which the gods, of course, reserved for themselves.

More than a thousand miles to the north, a parallel account seems to have coexisted in which a struggle broke out between fearsome giants and the Nordic gods in Asgard. There Idun, the goddess of spring, was the keeper of the golden apples. Each year she served them at a banquet to preserve the gods' immortality.

In the Icelandic Volsunga saga (a Germanic version of which forms the root of Wagner's Ring cycle), a generous goddess drops an apple into the lap of a childless king; a son is born who succeeds his father as king and plants an apple tree at the centre of his court.

Of all the Celtic myths and legends, none surpasses the rich concoction brewed up by Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th century for the story of Camelot and King Arthur. The "once and future king" had molted into medieval Christianity from Artos the bear, one of the oldest Nordic gods. Malory's version blends French and Celtic lore with the mission of the Christian Crusades. The Crusades and their attendant search for the lost Holy Grail steadily stole away Arthur's trusted friends and lieutenants until finally the aged Arthur found himself in mortal combat with his traitorous son Modred.

To recover from the wounds suffered in that final battle, he repaired to Avalon, a magic "island" where the golden apples of immortality grew.

The mysteries of the apple, its rich aura of fecundity, its divine portents, its proximity to peril and immortality, raise puzzling questions about the fruit's origins. How is it that these Norse warrior gods and the first millennium Greeks should have identified two such similar places - the island of Avalon and the isles of the Hesperides - beyond the ocean mists as the source of the divine fruit? Why should climates supporting such radically different agriculture and diets propose the same fruit of immortality? What sort of apples were they that both men and gods found so vital?

Part of the answer rests in language and part in the peculiar trail Christianity followed as it spread back into Europe following the collapse of Rome after the Mongol and Visigoth invasions. Save for the Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula, the great Irish and Benedictine monasteries were the only surviving repositories of classical learning and agricultural knowledge. They were principally concerned with the study and translation of the Bible. As translators wrestled with the Greek and Hebrew texts, they confronted a choice about how to tell the story of Paradise and man's loss of it. In the Hebrew text, the nature of the tree of all knowledge was left vague. In Greek texts, the word for apple, melon, could be rendered either as "fruit" or as "apple". The general Latin word for apple was similar, malum. But both melon and malum had also been used to refer to numerous fleshy fruits with seeds at their centre. The fact that the words for apple and evil, malum and mal, seemed so close gave these literal-minded translators further reason to identify the apple as Eve's fruit, according to the French cultural historian Michel Pastoreau. Since for these recently converted Celts apples were by far the most common tree fruits, it required little imagination to suppose that they must have dominated Paradise. The proliferation of monasteries, with their own pairidaeza, or walled gardens, well planted with apple trees, particularly the small yellow Paradise apple, only further reinforced the apple's popular image as the singular fruit of Paradise.

Although the apple symbolised fertility and eternal life, it also bore a dangerous, even diabolic dimension. In the blending of Christian, Celtic, and Greco-Roman myths, there emerged two apples: the good apple and the bad apple, a dualism that has followed the fruit into the late 20th century and found its origins in the ancient Greco-Roman myths.

In Greco-Roman myth, as in Judeo-Christian myth, the fruit of the gods becomes the ultimate female tool for temptation and destruction. Beneath its shiny skin lies a dangerous magic that persists today in opera, dance, and fairy tales - recall the evil witch who offers Snow White a bite of the beautiful apple. Nearly always the bewitching apple is linked to the power of love and evil.

The form and shape of the apple contain further mysteries still more appealing to the richly superstitious medieval mind and its emerging Manichaean view of the world. In an era of alchemy, numerology, and witchcraft, nothing about the physical fruit could be taken for granted. Slice the apple from stem to flower, and its female erotic imagery is plain: it is inescapably the fruit of Venus and Aphrodite. Slice it horizontally, however, and the five seeds, or pips, at its core describe the points of a perfect pentagram, a form and a number sacred at once to Christianity and to sorcery and believed to hold the key to all knowledge of good and evil. Little wonder that Merlin, the magician of the Round Table, should have chosen to sit beneath an apple tree to teach his followers and cast his spells during the transition from Celtic paganism to Christian Crusades.

Rife with magical and mysterious powers, apples were the most readily available fruit the early Europeans had. Yet even though the tree grew easily from Ireland to the Pacific coast, few people had access to the fine, sweet Roman varieties preserved behind monastery walls. The Romans had planted orchards across Gaul and Britain, and, indeed, according to food historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, a pale-yellow apple from Gaul became a Roman favourite. That agricultural system, alas, collapsed along with the retreat and collapse of the empire. What was left across northern Europe was a motley collection: the native crab apples, now, known as Malus sylvestris, a scattering of the old varieties, but mostly wild seedlings, the result of uncontrolled crosses among the Roman apples and the native crabs. Untended, the trees flourished. Often as not, however, an apple seedling will produce fruit that is bitter and at best suitable for cider and cooking.

As a result there was great mistrust of raw, fresh apples. Many believed them poison, just the sort of thing a witch would feed Snow White. Doctors advised against eating them raw. Even as late as the Renaissance, parents were explicitly told not to allow their children such sour fruit for fear of causing fevers and stomach flux - advice that persists into our own time about the consequences of eating green apples. At the same time, the fruit was used medicinally, ground into a pulp and applied to the skin to cure sores and painful joints, or it was pasted on the face and hair as a beauty aid - an etymological base to the skin and hair treatments we call "pomade".

From the coast of Brittany to the Sea of Japan, half-forgotten and re-remembered fragments of folklore still follow the apple. Even in this century, rhymes, jingles, and traditional predictions of love, marriage, and fate persist. A young Sicilian girl will toss an apple into the street beneath her window to find her fate; if a boy picks it up, they will marry within a year; if a woman picks it up, she must wait another year to try again; and if a priest picks it up, she will die a virgin. Traditional Kyrgyzstani women who are unable to conceive will roll themselves on the grass beneath an apple tree to make themselves fertile. A newly married Montenegrin woman will throw an apple against her husband's house to encourage the birth of many children. In provincial towns of northern France, a young woman will twirl an apple peel three times around her head and throw it into the air, and when it falls it will form the first letter of her true love's name.

Many of these customs crossed the Atlantic with the immigrants who settled America, and because apple trees have covered farmland in nearly all of the eastern half of the country, the myths have flourished as local superstition - and nowhere more so than in the hills neighbouring our farm in Kentucky.

When I was a child growing up on the orchard, I would hear my father ribbing young couples about how important it was for them to eat more apples because they were "high in fertility vitamins". Such fertility vitamins have yet to be found, but his banter, born of his classical training in Latin, may well have resonated with our country customers. "Eat a crab apple without frowning and you'll win the love of your dreams," runs one Kentucky mountain saying.

The seeds, so precisely placed at the points of the hidden pentagram within, account most for the superstition so long attributed to the fruit. Apples are prolific heaters of seeds, and indeed in French and other Romance languages the word for seed and semen remained the same until well into the 19th century. Nearly all common fruits, grains, and flowers - quinces, corn, wheat - have at some time or another served as talismans of fertility. None, however, has equated the mystique of the apple.

Extracted from `Apples - The Story of the Fruit of Temptation', by Frank Browning, which is published on 5 August by Allen Lane The Penguin Press (pounds 14.99)