The sign read: “recent windfalls – ‘cookers’ – please help yourselves”. There was another sign next to it that said ‘eaters’. Cookers and eaters – two types of apple, one sour, bulky and big-shouldered, good really for cooking, where it goes to mush, the other sweeter, smaller – one to have in the hand. Although the sweet apple wasn’t particularly sweet; sharp, dry as bark on its dappled outside, but a brisk, juicy interior. When juiced later, the froth was brown, leading to a startling pink beneath.
There was not much wind to speak of that day. The air seemed suspended, with swifts carousing through little channels above us, their wings like black darts. Actually their wings were like wings, the kind you draw as a child – two V shapes. We listed with our enormous load, my plastic pockets crammed. Blackberries now liquidized were dripping like blood down my arm. And all this before lunch, which happened at three. Rather like Christmas day, without the presents.
We went into a cafe which specializes in china teacups and ladies. It is very English; everyone feels undeserving. The lady next door to us was alone. She ordered tea and apple cake. It is the kind of place where you are so close to your neighbours that you need to make a decision early on about whether to include them in your life for that brief window of time. But this was unnecessary because there was a flurry of misunderstandings, panic ensued, as the apple cake was off – and then suddenly back on – the menu. Almost no apple cake – not really a story. No tragedy there. Except it gave the lovely young waitresses (gap year) a chance to flounce around a bit, and have a laugh with each other. For the lady to show off her cool and calm persona. After the apple cake arrived, and her fork had made its incision, she produced a mobile phone and began a quiet, very civilized conversation with someone unknown (probably male) on the other end. She was very organized, I could see.
This is what I don’t have in LA: the chance to watch people at such close quarters. To notice things, like a certain kind of hair-clip, a cardigan, skin tone, imagining the man on the other end of the line. Watching a thought alight on a face. And aren’t English people interesting? We are so swathed in layers, submerged in stories that become more and more intricate with the telling. I am always surprised by English people, I think that’s it.
We waited at the bus stop, next to a couple eating ice cream. They shuffled up to let us in on the bench. I watched a man opposite with his dog, a scruffy thing, his tail wagging, his tongue out, looking around and occasionally up at his master. Two horses clip-clopped by. We got on the bus, a small Noddy bus, green and miniature, our coats bulging obscenely with our apple stash. We were deposited back to Seaford. I made the cake.
This is Mark Hix’s lovely regional apple cake made with cider and honey. In his case, the region is Somerset – mine is a Sussex story. You can use whatever local apples come your way – choose cookers, such as the Bramley, or sharp eaters at a pinch. A sweet dessert apple would be missing the point here.
Sussex apple cake
From Mark Hix, on Baking
I once ‘hilariously’ used cider vinegar instead of cider, by mistake. I thought it would destroy the cake but actually the flavours were enhanced by it, though it did make me think of fish and chips. If you’re unsure, stick to the original recipe. Also, don’t be put off by the sheer amount of apples required here. It really does make a difference. Dry apple cake isn’t fun.
Makes 1 x 24cm cake
170g unsalted butter, softened
170g soft brown sugar
3 medium eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
1 heaped tbs of honey
240g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp mixed spice
600-700g cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into smallish chunks
Prepare a loose-bottomed 24cm x 6-8cm deep cake tin by greasing it if it’s non-stick, or lining the base with buttered greaseproof paper if not. Pre-heat the oven to 160C/320F. Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs with the honey. Gently fold in the flour and mixed spice then stir in the cider and apples. Transfer to the cake tin and bake for 1 and a 1/4 hours, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes our clean. Cool in the tin; serve warm on its own or with thick cream. Clotted cream would be stupendous here.
Other apple recipes to try: