This week, I painted an apple which had the most beautiful pattern. It almost looked like a little planet. The lovely russeting looked like continents and islands. It got me thinking about the life cycle of fruit trees. It's just such a wonderful thing, something that we rarely think about. I have also added some apple tales and some tips from the painting table, I hope you like them.
Apple World by Billy Showell
Those who have read my blogs know I live next door to an Apple farm.
Kent, which was always known as the Garden of England, was famous for its apples because there were so many apple and cherry farms and fruit farms in general. At certain times of year back in the 40s and 50s, if you were to fly over Kent, it would be a blaze with beautiful blossom.
Apple fact: Apples make up half of the world's deciduous fruit tree production
My favourite time is when the trees are full of blossom, and you can walk along the rows of apple trees and imagine how glorious it must be to be a Bee.
I always think it would be the most beautiful wedding setting; I can imagine the Happy couple walking down between the isles of blossom. But I am a hopeless romantic.
Nearly everywhere I've lived, there has been an apple tree in the garden. The only time I was without an Apple tree was when I was a student and lived in Brixton, London.
Everywhere else, there has been an apple tree. The women in my family have all been good bakers; my Nan's apple pie was legendary, my mother's applesauce cake was unforgettable, my older sister can make the most beautiful French apple tart, and my mother-in-law made the most wonderful apple and almond pudding. So it is with great pleasure that I carry on the tradition and love making cakes and sweet things from apples; I have recently made a French apple pie with a beautiful vanilla-soaked custard texture.
My Dad told me the tale of when he had a girlfriend who lived in Kent long before he met Mum. At the time, he lived in the East End of London, so one day, he decided to cycle to Kent with a friend and visit his girlfriend. The two boys set off with just a tent and the energy of youth.
When the lads reached Kent, they were pretty hungry; luckily, they fell upon an apple orchard and filled their pockets with windfalls. I believe it was a time of rationing, so it felt like they had struck gold.
Further into the journey, they stopped at Canterbury and headed to the Cathedral to look around. In those days, Canterbury was a sleepy place, and the Cathedral was not set up for tourism as it is today. They walked their bicycles in through the main doors and up the aisle, resting them on the pews.
Dad said the clergymen (as they were just men in those days) were pleased to see them, and as the boys tucked into their apples, they could see that the clergy were watching the apples with hungry eyes, so they emptied their pockets and gifted the remaining apples to their grateful and hungry audience. After much chatting and a little history and rest
the boys continued on their long ride to a little village called Mayfield and dad's sweetheart.
I have to say, luckily, the romance didn't prosper, or I would not be here.
Dad returned only once to the Cathedral in the 90s, without his bike, but was happy to recall his wartime adventure to anyone he met.
Another apple story
My dear friend Beverley was once at our house with her youngest daughter and husband. We were having a bonfire evening with friends, as is the tradition on November 5th. We had a small bonfire, lovely food and drink, and all the children went off to climb and play near the appletree. After a while, we were made aware of a spat; an argument had started between B's daughter and my youngest son, William. They were around eight and in the same year at school and generally got on well.
On this occasion, B's daughter had thrown William's beloved wooden sword into the hedge, and in retaliation, William had thrown a rather sizeable rotten apple at her; he was a good shot. She was now at the top of the tree and wouldn't come down and was in a state of magnificent fiery indignation, which was rather impressive.
I went over to William and suggested that he head to the tree to apologise.
He looked at me and, without hesitation, said,
'I'm not going anywhere near her till she calms down',
at which point we all fell about laughing, he had a point.
A truce was eventually arrived at, and it was all resolved in the end.
I followed the evening with a pep talk to William on how we should not react to issues by retaliation and definitely not by throwing rotten apples; the advice was graciously accepted.
Apple fact: Apples Are 25% Air.
Apple trees are incredibly hardy, and cooking apple trees are even heartier.
The trees are developed on a good route stock so that you can grow different varieties from the same stock. I notice that the trees are pruned regularly and mostly kept no taller than around 7 feet tall to make it easier to pick the fruit. The farm is moving over to growing grapes, mainly because the climate has changed, and I suppose they can make more money from making wine.
I will miss the blossom if all the apples give way to the vines, but progress takes no pity.
Apple fact: the word æppel in Old English referred not just to apples but to any fruit.
Down at the far side of the orchard, there is a small copse of old Apple trees. I'm unsure of the variety, but the flesh is pink throughout. These little red apples last only a short time and must be eaten almost as soon as they are ripe. It is impossible to store them for very long, which is probably why this smattering of 10 trees is the last remaining in this spot. These small red apple trees are so pretty; they are the sort of tree you would draw in a picture book of Apple trees. They are ancient, and one by one, they are gradually falling down, so each year, we make the most of them and pick as many apples as we can possibly eat; they are not a commercial crop and would otherwise be wasted, falling to the ground and rotting.
Here is the tree that grows fruit for us,
This is a tree that we cherish.
This little tree is a tree laden with food,
Food that will always replenish.
Apple fact: Apple trees take 4-5 years to produce their first fruit.
Thank goodness the apples come back every year! What a fantastic thing!
And though autumn can sometimes feel slightly melancholy for some, I think it is a time to celebrate the sheer awesomeness of food crops.
The trees are always groaning in fruit, sometimes to the point where the branches snap under the considerable weight of all the apples. Some are dark, deep, plum red, some with a little smattering russet; others are green and red in the prettiest patterns. Many are exported because they are too big for the British market. Apparently, the British don't like massive apples, but I'm not sure we were ever asked, and I'm certain if that's all that was available, we would definitely buy them.
Once picked, the apples are put into cold storage. The storage is low on oxygen levels and high levels of carbon dioxide, which slows down the natural production of ethylene. Ethylene causes apples to soften and deteriorate.
The Apple stores are enormous, and the apples can often be stored for up to 1 year or more.
We have a small derelict 1950s Apple Store in our garden. In the heat of the summer, you can stand in the store, and it will be icy cold; the old cork insulation is exceptional.
Apple fact: Apples grown in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries were more likely to end up in a cider barrel than a pie.
Above is an old oil painting of mine copyright Billy Showell
(in those days I don't think I always signed my work)
All the fruits are harvested in late September, so the farm next door is always hectic at this time of the year. Then it falls very silent; there is the occasional noisy day when the hedges are cut or spraying occurs, but generally, the trees are allowed to rest gently for the winter.
Did you know that fruit trees require about a thousand hours of chill? We all do if chill means hanging loose and relaxing. Seriously though, the chill is below zero, as a warm winter can encourage disease and produce less blossom and fruit. However, some varieties need less chill; it depends on which continent they originated from.
Q: What can a whole apple do that half an apple can't?
A: It can look round.
Notes from the painting table.
Often, I am employed to paint small illustrations for commercial companies. They are usually softer in style and reproduced very small, so occasionally, I strengthen the design with a heavy pencil line. I have filmed myself painting some green mandarins and can show you some snapshots of the development .
I love painting faster in these studies, quickly sketching the layout and dropping in the colours. The timescale to deliver is often 'yesterday', so one has to work fast and effectively.
These were painted on 'Fabriano 5' 140lb 300 gsm
I hope you find the following images of interest. You will see the sketchy nature of the the outline, I can do this when no one is watching.
wishing you fruitful and peaceful times
warm wishes Billy x