Apple Charlotte will always remind me of my mother.
“And what exactly is Apple Charlotte?” …he fairly sneered in obvious disbelief. This was my twelve year old self being confronted by Brother Eustace, critiquing an essay I’d recently submitted about the joys of Halloween…the Eve of All Hallows.I could feel the prickling embarrassed reddening spreading up my neck into my face as he studied my reaction.It was obvious that this teacher had never heard of the dish and was attempting to make fun and games of me over an exotic thing that I’d popped into my essay unknowingly. It was obvious that he had never heard of it and his view seemed to be, that a little smart arse like me, should not have heard of it either. .He doubted its veracity and thought I’d simply stuck it into the Halloween celebrations as some kind of joke or possibly made it up entirely. Not so….. It was an apple -dish that made regular appearances on our table at home , especially during the autumnal season of apples. We lived in the Apple County, after all, and the bramley apples grown here made the best apple dishes in the known world. It was a fact.Everyone knew that ,but this old blow-in from “down country” obviously had a little apple -shaped hole in his own education that I was not supposed to put right.
My mother was a country woman.She grew up in a small Irish village .When I was a boy , I would visit her homeplace, only some five miles away , but an extraordinary long bus ride for a small boy, to see her sisters, my aunts, and my silver-haired grandfather. Back then in the 1950’s ,there was a row of little cottages, set jewel-like, in a sprawling countryside ;fields of cattle lazily grazing on buttercup, either side. A water pump at the bottom of the street where you would carry large white enamel buckets to fill with sparkling, clear water; an all purpose grocery shop at the end of the street like something out of the cowboy films and a little victualer’s van that toured arond once a week and stopped to sell provisions that were harder to find.
The roof of my grandfather’s house had been straw- thatched originally, but now it had that new corrugated, galvanised tin protecting it from the heavens. It was all smartly painted with whitewash and there was a little garden out front.It was a cosy home, in my unknowing, childhood memory and as my grandfather’s family had grown , extra bedrooms had obviously been added gradually to the original little one -storey cottage.There was a cast iron stove to warm it and where the old kettle boiled to make “the tae” or where the bread was freshly baked or griddled.. In those days, before television came along there was the big wooden radio of course, but what I mostly remember was the musty clop , clap of the tocking clock on the wall; that and the rooster crowing to his hens , out in the yard. There was a quietness, quite unknown to modern ears ,accustomed from birth as they are,to twenty four hour chattering media, burling washing machines , rumbling tumble-driers and countless cars burbling and rorting by, all day and night.
Out back my grandfather had a field full of potatoes, turnips and cabbages, which the big sow pig sometimes escaped into .There was the acrid smell of chicken guano in the wee shed and that feathered , dry dustiness of the henhouse. That eye -watering , ammonia smell that caught and stung the nostrils of a wee “townie” like me. There was the outside, large “thunderbox” wooden- seated toilet with the small squares of newspaper neatly hanging on a wire, which i approached with some trepidation. What I really loved was when my grandfather set up two little “bantie” eggs for me for my breakfast or when he tipped up a bowl full of blue “balls of flour” spuds on the table, straight from the garden, which I ate with relish , smothering each potato with yellow, country home -made butter and a pinch of salt .A very heaven!
This was where my mother’s roots lay.Not dissimilar to many of our parents or grandparents a generation or so ago. My mother had a life beyond these humble beginnings, of course, which took her to wartime London in the 1940’s where she met my father. That was where I came in .
My mother was an open-minded woman, an adventurous baker and cook. She baked fresh bread most weeks in the country style of large round loaves .These were sometimes plain wheaten or soda bread but more often were full of fruit and nuts. We were raised on her baking. I recall how she used to cut a loaf held “crooked” in her arm while she sawed towards herself , dropping large, perfect slices on the plate. Like i say, she lived in London in her twenties and she also picked up a taste for a variety for more exotic fare than was the norm in 1950’s Ireland . She would make Spaghetti Bolognese or Indian kedgeree which my classmates would ask about warily. There were few immigrants from more exotic climes bringing their recipes and customs to us ,back then .The Italians had brought their fish and chips and ice cream but the Chinese, the indians had not really made any impact at this stage .
You might say my mother was a little before her time or ahead of the curve . She certainly instilled that adventurous spirit in her children.
So back to “Apple Charlotte” .it’s a simple dish really.A sort of bread encased apple “bombe”.It was probably a method devised for using up stale bread.A deep dish is lined with buttered bread and then filled with sliced apples and sealed with more bread and the whole thing is baked until golden brown..Apple bread and butter pudding with a little spice, really…but delicious.It was at this moment in the classroom that i realised that my own mother was probably better-travelled and more open- minded than some of the teachers who were trying to educate me. They do say education starts at home . My mother obviously knew this lesson very well already.
Although dead over twenty years now, apples will always bring her back to me .