The Garden Gate: Nothing like nutritious apples on a crisp fall day

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Cosimo De Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, gave a lavish banquet at his castle in 1670.

At this party, 56 varieties of apples were served in various ways. Today, there are more than 6,500 varieties of apples, thanks to crossbreeding by botanists and horticulturists.

Ever since the days of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, apples have played their part in legend, science, art and history. They are as important today as they were in ancient Rome.

Apples were raised in the gardens of the Phoenicians. In Greek mythology, one of Hercules’ goals was to obtain the golden apples of the Hesperides, which were vigilantly guarded because they were considered to bestow immorality on those who had them.

Isaac Newton is purported to have realized the truth of the force of gravity when an apple fell from a tree under which he was sitting and hit him on the head.

And apples have been the subject of countless still-life paintings by many artists, among them Cezanne, Crivelli and Corbet.

The apple tree, in all its hundreds of varieties, is the most important and most widely cultivated fruit tree grown in temperate zones. It has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years in its native regions of eastern Europe and western Asia.

It is the fruit of a round, crowned tree which can grow to about 40 feet and may live more than 100 years.

There are countless varieties; the ancient Romans were familiar with 22 of them.

Apples were important in the social and economic history of America. Our earliest settlers included apple seeds among the precious seeds they brought with them to what would later be New England. Peregrine White, the first white child born in New England, told in later years of planting apple seeds in his family’s garden.

American apples were among the first products exported to England. They were sent to London well before the time of the American Revolution.

Later, John Chapman, famous in American history and legend as Johnny Appleseed, went traveling about Ohio, planting apple trees wherever he went.

Even now, more than 100 years later, some residents of older Ohio towns will point with pride to a gnarled, ancient apple tree and claim it was planted by Johnny Appleseed.

Apples are one of our favorite fruits and have even become part of our everyday speech. We say “the apple of his eye,” “an apple for the teacher” and “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Fresh apples are sold by weight. All apples are graded by United States standards for fresh fruits and vegetables.

These gradations are used to designate the maturity, appearance, quality and use of the apple. Depending on size, one to three apples equal 1 pound.

Apples can be hard to describe. They can be round, like a McIntosh; or egg-shaped, like a Delicious. They can vary in size from a 2-inch crabapple to a 6-inch Rome beauty. The flesh may be white as a Wealthy, or yellow as a Golden Delicious.

They may be crisp as a Northern Spy, mellow as a Baldwin, sweet as a Grimes Golden, or tart as a Winesap.

Apple skin is thin and glossy. It ranges in color from bright or russet red to yellow and green.

Apples can fit in any course of a meal and are very good to much on between meals, too. They are to be found equally in school lunchboxes and fancy tarts and pies.

When great plagues like the famous Black Death ravaged Europe in the 14th century, physicians carried an apple stuck with cloves and placed on the end of a wand of wood. They held it before them as they entered a house of illness in an attempt to ward off infection. In time, this became the trademark of the medical profession.

There was a tremendous vogue for wearing or carrying pomanders in the 16th century. Originally apples stuck with many cloves and rolled in powdered spices, these were later globes made of gold, silver, carved ivory or porcelain.

They were hollow and perforated, and inside were spices or potpourri of rose petals or cotton saturated with perfume. Many portraits Queen Elizabeth I of England show her either holding a pomander or wearing one fastened to a short gold chain and attached to the bodice of her dress.

Apple pomanders are still much used to scent linen closets and store with furs to prevent moths. With potpourri, they lend a sweet, diffused scent to various rooms of the house.

Apples are full of vitamins and fibers. They are an important basic food. In Colonial and Victorian times, apples were dried in the summer for winter use. Applesauce and apple butter were put up in crocks and jars, and apples were stored in trays in the attic to brighten wintertime meals.

Cider mills flourish in many of the northern states at this time of year. They’re usually crowded with visitors watching the great presses and water wheels that power them and enjoying the fresh cider, the crisp autumn air and the brilliant color of the leaves as they begin to fall.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.