By Benjamin Daniells
It’s fair to say, that in the garden certain plants and their produce are more charismatic than others. Each season has it’s favourite. Autumn though is a time apart. There is an almost unparalleled bounty of produce in what is seemingly the last great push before the onslaught of winter. Squash and big beefy beetroot are probably up there for most people. Yet it’s the apple that maybe clinches it for me.
The story of the apple is almost unbelievable. Claimed by nations across the world as ‘their’ fruit, it crops up in almost every climate, in almost any soil type and although it might not thrive, it survives with almost any weather pattern. We have bred apples with flavours more akin to a Roald Dahl story than the English countryside. Neglected trees continuous to produce almost out of spite, relentlessly delivering crops for decades, dropping bomb sized Bramleys onto roof tiles in a quest for attention. However, before I wax lyrical and get all geeky about what I endearingly refer to as tree sweets, there is a book called The Apple Orchard, written by Pete Brown; read it and you’ll understand.
Now back to Oldstead. Nearby, there exists an orchard on a scale that is hard to comprehend. There are quite literally hundreds of trees. By themselves, these numbers are nothing special, most commercial orchards will boast thousands. Here though, it is the scale of varieties that is so astounding. Centuries old and modern, eating and cooking, juicing and cider, early and late; the list goes on and on. It is my ideal sweet shop. So when I suggested I bring a few varieties for the chefs to try, I was surprised to hear Nick, our development chef, tell me he wasn’t too sure how this would go down. Yet despite his reservations of home grown apples, Nicks sense of culinary adventure got the better of him. So a few weeks ago we headed down to the development kitchen with TB to taste some apples.
With names such as Sunset, Bountiful, Sparta, Saturn and Topaz to lure us in, we were soon in the thick of it. As with all true connoisseurs, our tasting notes ranged from ‘rainbow skittles’, to ‘fizzy blueberries’, to ‘mountainside strawberries’ and then to the more understated ‘classic apple’. There was just one, rather less polite version of ‘terribly inedible’.
Now i’m sure you’re wondering what we do all day at Oldstead if three of us are busy tasting apples. And although I concur, this sounds like an all too merry afternoon, especially for someone as keen on apples as I am, ultimately we did have a game plan. We narrowed down the 15 varieties I brought along to 3 that really stood out. The outcome of our tasting has had influence on the menu with a new dish being created. Something delicious for anyone who visits Oldstead in the coming months.
Whilst I was wandering around this most Yorkshire of orchards, I was trying to pick a selection of apples based on certain qualities the chefs were looking for. They have dishes in mind that they believe the right apple will add that little extra. The FOH team are all over it too. Hopefully we’ve found a few favourites to add to our own expanding orchard.
A few weeks in and the imagination of everyone involved with The Black Swan is still catching me by surprise.
Follow Ben over on Instagram @theblackswangarden to see what else he is growing and foraging here at The Black Swan at Oldstead.
Blackened Apple with Sourdough Ice Cream
The dessert Nick has developed currently uses Topaz apples which are blackened in the same way as the black garlic on our Venison dish. The flavour of that black garlic was so interesting that Nick set about testing a variety of other things, foraged or from the garden to see what the long but gentle process did to the taste of some everyday flavours. Once the best apple varieties had been narrowed down by Ben, TB and Nick the process of keeping the apples at a constant 60 degrees for 6 weeks began. The apples browned and were then turned into a paste that coats a layer of pastry topped with caramelised Topaz apples. This is served with Sour Dough ice-cream.