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Food and Drink

“A” is for apple appreciation

An apple a day may not keep the doctor completely away, but more and more scientific studies point to the health benefits of eating apples. Some of the latest demonstrate that apples show substantial benefits in preventing some cancers, notably colon and lung, as well as heart disease.

If that doesn’t convince you to grab an apple for a snack, then simply take a look at how beautiful they are this time of year. Fresh, ripe and naked, without their dip in the wax bath that packing houses use to keep them “fresh” in storage, apples in October are ripe for the taking.

I’m not sure why — they seem so commonplace? Old-fashioned? They’re tough on your gums if they aren’t healthy? Too messy? — but a lot of people have given up eating apples out of hand.

But not so apple-holics, like those participating in the UBC Apple Festival at the university’s Botanical Garden each October. This free event attracts crowds, both for the apples you can buy (they usually sell around 12,000 kilos) and the apple-insights you gain.

If you can’t find an apple you like, keep trying. There’s more to life than a Red Delicious or McIntosh, and I don’t mean your computer. The UBC festival alone sold 60 varieties; 200 different kinds of one-year-old apple trees were also available.

For some, the unique taste of an apple is so loaded with memories and goodness that they go to all kinds of lengths to graft and preserve a special tree. It may be one that grew in the yard next door when they were kids, or a neighbourhood favourite slated for the bulldozer.

If you’ve given up because every time you buy an apple it’s mealy or tasteless, try again. Look for fresh, unwaxed apples, especially those from local growers in Pemberton, Lillooet and the Okanagan. You’ll have way more luck if you go organic.

If you’re lucky you’ll be able to find some unusual varieties at Whistler, thanks to the efforts of former resident, Anthony Evans. Anthony, who now lives in Osoyoos with his wife, Diana, brings fresh, locally-grown apples, pears and other produce from the Okanagan to local restaurants and stores.

Some of the varieties he supplies you may not otherwise find so easily: Ambrosia (a chance seedling, like the Granny Smith in Australia, that was discovered growing in an orchard in Cawston in the Similkameen Valley), Snow, Winter Banana, the Aurora Golden Gala (bred right in Summerland) and even the Cox Orange Pippin, a distinctive small, fragrant yellow-fleshed apple, which dates back to the 1830s and is a favourite of anyone from England.

If you start getting into apples, you’ll find they’re something you can appreciate, like wine or cheeses: You learn to discern their many different tastes and qualities and look forward to finding your favourites. Anthony and Diana’s is the Pink Lady — pretty to behold and known for its fragrant sweetness, and the fact that the white flesh doesn’t oxidize and turn brown, making it ideal for dishes where presentation is important.

Pick at the peak

If you’ve discovered a favourite tree in a farmer’s field or you’re heading off to the Okanagan to pick your own apples, here’s the scoop.

First of all, timing is everything. When healthy, unblemished fruits start to drop to the ground, you’re right on time. Another clue: check the “under colour” or “ground colour” of the apple. In yellow or gold varieties, the under colour is the same as the peel. But in red apples, you can see it around the core or stem cavities, and it changes from green to yellow or greenish-yellow as apples mature. So watch for the colour change to make sure you're picking apples that are ready to use.

As well, ripe apples should be easy to pick with stems attached. You should be able to roll or twist the apple so its stem separates from the tree, not from the fruit. Whether you’re picking apples from the tree or the counter in the fresh produce department, you want ones that still have the stem attached — missing stems leave a tiny opening into the core that could spell trouble.

Handle fruits carefully after picking to avoid bruising. If you’re traveling a fair distance, try not to stack them more than three or four deep in a box. You might want to use crumpled newspapers to cushion a layer or two.

Once home, store them in a dry cool place to enjoy their snappy goodness the longest possible time.

Shriveled little people

If all else fails, you may appreciate an entirely different way of appreciating apples.

I was snooping around a friend’s house the other day and in the china cabinet along with other family treasures sat a tiny doll with a brown, shriveled, scary-looking little face. It was something I hadn’t seen in years — an apple head — and it reminded me how fun and creepy they are.

I’m not sure there’s enough time before Halloween to create some of these mysterious little things with your kids, but there sure are enough apples around and if you start now, you’ll have plenty for next year.

Making apple heads is a cinch. Simply peel one apple for each head you want — any variety will do. Then carve a face into one side. Make fairly wide openings for the mouth and eyes, and don’t forget a good-sized nose sticking out.

Once you’re satisfied with the faces, place the apple heads in a warm — and here’s the key on the wet coast — dry place. You don’t want mould to grow on them.

As they shrivel you can shape the features with your fingers or small tools. As the eye cavities start to dry and close, place one tiny black seed bead in each eye hole and the apple will shrivel around them to hold them in place for eyes.

You may have to experiment a bit until you learn how deep to carve the facial features to get the effects you like.

It can take weeks until your apple heads have dried enough, but once they do, you can glue hair on top — real human hair always looks best — to hide the spot where the stem was. Add bits of cloth and other details, or even a whole body, to cover the blossom end and make your apple heads come alive.

If you want to get gruesome at Halloween, or any time, string thread or a piece of fishing line up through the centre and hang them like tiny shrunken heads. They’re sure to keep all marauders at bay.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who just tossed her core into the garbage can.