Crazy about crab apples

By Sarah Watson

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The original native crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris) is a valuable wildlife habitat and food plant that’s now uncommon in the wild. The abundant, fragrant blossoms attract bees, and birds and mammals eat the yellow-green fruit. The wild native species is a smallish thorny tree of woodland edges and hedgerows with a habit of becoming ‘crabbily’ gnarled and twisted. But there are also many cultivated, ornamental varieties and species of crab apple, and apple trees from discarded pips growing wild also tend to produce small ‘wildling’ apples. Whether cultivated, wildling or wild, crab apple fruit is usually somewhat sour, bitter and dry-tasting but this intense apple flavour works well in many recipes, including drinks, which makes it a wonderful ingredient in my eyes!

Crab apples are in the rose family – Rosaceae. The deciduous leaves are arranged alternately on the twigs and can vary in shape, but are roughly oval or round with a pointed end and finely serrated edges. As the tree grows older, the scaly, greyish bark becomes cracked. The five-petalled flowers are white or pink with numerous yellow stamens, and appear in April and May.

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I love the variety of crab apple fruit, they can range in diameter from less than a centimetre to around five centimetres, and can be oval as well as round. The little apples may be green, yellow, red, or prettily flushed with pink or red. The fibrous stalk is long in relation to the size of the fruit when compared to a standard sized apple. Cutting the apples in half at right-angles to the stalk reveals the distinctive five-pointed star-shaped apple core where the seeds (pips) develop. The fruit is ripe when it begins to fall off the tree and the seeds turn brown.

Crab apples, like all apples, contain some vitamin C and may contain significant quantities of antioxidant compounds, such as anthocyanin (the dark red pigment in some  apples) and quercetin which may help prevent cancer, asthma and diabetes. Crab apples are also high in pectin, which has been shown to help reduce cholesterol levels and may reduce the risk of heart disease. There’s something in the old saying ‘an apple an day..’! Like all apples, the skin, and just under the skin, is where the nutrients are most concentrated, so to get the most of the beneficial compounds, process and eat the skin along with the flesh.

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Crab apples have long been associated with love and marriage. Apples were thought to have magical powers and the Celts knew them as the tree of love. Folklore says that if you throw crab apple pips into the fire while saying the name of a lover, if the lover is faithful the pip will explode in the heat, but if they are not, the pip will burn silently!

Always use a good plant identification book when foraging, and remember to leave some fruit behind for the wildlife.

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Crab apples make excellent jams, jellies, pickles, apple sauce, sorbet, syrup, cordial and cider. They were traditionally roasted and added to wassail, which contained ale or cider with sugar and spices…Here’s my round-up of recipes from the web – you could use cooking apples, like Bramleys, for any of these recipes if you can’t get crab apples:

Crab apple leather makes a super snack, here’s a recipe from The Hedgerow Cookbook. You need to spread out the puree to about 5 or 6 mm thick with a spatula or spoon before drying in a low oven (50°C is ideal – for that you may need to prop your oven door slightly open), or a food dehydrator. You can add other fruit, flavourings  or  spices to the mix such as cinnamon, fennel seeds or hogweed seed. I’d advise removing cores and stones at the start if you can, that way you can blend up the fruit skins and get the benefit of all the nutrients concentrated there.

Try crab apple, orange and cider jelly in gravies and sauces, as an accompaniment to roast pork or cheese, or it’s delicious enough just to spread as it is on buttery toast. This fab recipe’s from voluntary community group West Ealing Abundance which uses London fruit that would otherwise go to waste.

What about a spiced crab apple (or quince) butter from Gail Duff’s Country-side Cook Book for spreading over cakes or on warm scones.

Or try Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s blackberry and crab apple cordial.

And last, but certainly not least, here’s Abel & Cole’s recipe for crab apple whisky, make in autumn/fall in time for Christmas!

Discover more about identifying and cooking with wild herbs and flowers on a Wild Feast foraging & cookery course.  Get wild food and drink tips and updates on courses on Facebook and sign up for my e-newsletter for wild food & drink recipes direct to your inbox (option to unsubscribe at any time).