Deep in me is a little piece of Virginia. I lived there back in the dark ages, that is, when I was a teenager, but there's still a part of me that misses those heavily-forested mountains blazing with autumn colour; the red brick houses tucked among oaks and azaleas; the occasional glimpses of deer and bear. And I miss the roadside apple stands.
Ah, apple stands. If you're thinking of a charming tumbledown Tasmanian shed with a few bags of apples and an honesty box, think again. This is America, home of free enterprise and mind-blowing kitsch. Imagine instead a road, wending its way above the clouds through glorious mountains. Turn a corner, and be confronted by an enormous parking lot ablaze with the red, white and blue, if not the Confederate flag. There's probably music blasting, country or western – we like all types. The lot contains Ford Broncos and big Toyota trucks; the people wear jeans and flannelette shirts. You might see lank hair protruding from a battered baseball cap, or frizzy-haired women in tight jeans and full make up.
And there you buy God's gift to Virginia: apples. You can also buy cider, hard (alcoholic) or soft; apple butter; apple jelly; and maybe even salt-water taffy. You might also find cinnamon-scented candles, battery-operated plastic things, soft toys, t-shirts, flags, and a range of other tat.
The gallon jugs of cider are awesome, like nothing I've found in Australia. The apple jelly, a clear preserve, is sweetly quivering; and the apple butter smooth and unctuous.
At this time of year, in a Melbourne winter, the cool crisp air reminds me of a Virginian autumn. I go for brisk rides around town, looking for red bricks and deciduous trees, then come home and make apple butter.
I haven't seen apple butter for sale here. I don't know why, because it's simple to make, and delicious. It doesn't contain butter. Instead, it's just apples cooked down with sugar and spices until they form a glossy spreadable purée, just the thing to liven up a slice of toast or, better, pancakes. Apple butter pairs especially well with God's other gift to Virginia, the hog. Thanks to its climate, which makes it ideal for raising and curing hogs, Virginia is the capital of salty pork products.
Apple butter and bacon: cool hot, sweet salty, smooth crisp… the combination proves that there is a God, and she wants us to be happy. On a Sunday, my nine-year-old makes buckwheat pancakes while I frazzle up some bacon. We spread our pancakes thickly with apple butter, and load bacon on the side. Here's happiness on a plate, and something I owe to Virginia.
Two methods for apple butter are given below. If you have a food mill, you don't need to peel or core the apples, which makes for maximum flavour and pectin. If you don't have a food mill, peel and core the apples, expect to cook the butter longer, and use either a blender or an immersion blender to make a smooth purée.
- 2 kg apples, any type, any combination (whatever's going off in the fruit bowl/whatever's cheap)
If you have a food mill, fantastic. Chop the apples randomly – don't peel or core them – and throw them into a big bowl. As you go, layer the apples with the sugar. Cover the bowl and leave all day or overnight to macerate.
If you don't have a food mill, peel and core the apples, then chop, layer, cover and leave as above.
Scrape the apples, leached juice and sugar into a large deep pot. Throw in the other ingredients. Cook over medium heat until the apples are completely soft, at least thirty minutes. Turn off the heat and leave to cool for a little while, then purée either by putting it all through the finest screen of a food mill, or using a blender of some sort.
Return the purée to the pot, and turn the heat back on. With the heat medium-low, keep stirring and scraping the purée, ensuring nothing sticks to the pan. If you stop stirring, it will spit like crazy – think quince paste. You have been warned. You will need to stir it for about an hour, or a bit more if you have excluded the peels and cores; it depends on the pectin levels of your apples.
Meanwhile – and this is the trick – wash five 300g jam jars. Sterilise the jars and lids using your chosen method (baby bottle steam steriliser / boiling water in deep pot), remove, and place on a tray in a low oven. Somehow, you will do all this about halfway through stirring the apple butter – either resign yourself to some butter spitting onto the wall while you flit between sink and stove, or enlist help! I recommend the latter.
After about an hour, the butter will begin to firm up. When a wooden spoon scraped across the bottom of the pot leaves a bit of a path, the butter will have attained a nice spreadable consistency (see picture below). Turn off the heat.
Important comment: Every government agency insists that the only safe way to preserve food is to run it through a boiling water preserver. They are right. You can find complete instructions here. The fact that I choose to use a traditional French method to seal jars is a matter of preference; if you try it and get botulism, don't blame me!
(Local: apples, lemon. Northern Victoria: salt. Not local: sugar, cinnamon, cloves.)