Updated: Oct 4
It's crabapple season here in the UK! We're lucky enough to have a fair few particularly old trees in our local area, some dotted randomly along woodland paths, and others tucked away deeper off the beaten track. The crabapple trees are an ancient woodland indicator and show just how far back into time the forest stretches.
Crabapple gathering used to feel like a carefully timed game of chicken - daring to leave the apples long enough to mature, but still needing to get in there and harvest your haul before someone else snaffled them. One year, we took a ladder through the woods to get to the high ones which no-one else could reach. That and an army of five small children with the bucket to pass them down to!
These days though, the kids have all grown, and the apples seem to go uncollected by anyone else. I wonder if it's because people have less free time - life is busier and money is harder won. Or, it may have been more elderly foragers who have passed on.
Sometimes, woodland paths which were open and obviously regularly used become overgrown and impassable. It's as if the forest suddenly announces that "this part is closed now", possibly with the passing of the previous foragers, or simply the spirits of land letting it rest.
If you fancy having a go at foraging for crabapples they are one of the easier fruits to recognise, though obviously, you should always be sure of what you're collecting. There are many types of apple trees around the world, but crabapples are quite distinctive in their own way. Crabapples are small, often green-skinned on the tree (ripening to yellow-skinned on the ground) and taste extremely sour. For identification, the British crabapple has the Latin name of Malus sylvestris.
We're lucky enough to walk almost daily along woodland paths, identifying and observing trees throughout the whole year. I wholeheartedly recommend this for having confidence in your tree and plant identification - a tree with leaves can be fairly easy to spot, but a group of various trees in mid-winter is a different matter. Get to know the shapes, the bark textures, the way it shoots in the spring ... you'll eventually know it at any time of year.
Crabapple jelly is the classic recipe to try. It's good with roasted or cold meats, especially pork or gammon. It's also pretty wonderful with cheeses or to have a dollop on the side of your ploughman's lunch. You can see from the photos how the colours gradually change during the jelly-making process, from the greens and yellows of the apples, through to rosy-yellow during the processing, and finally the blush-pink of the newly-made jelly.
We collect our crabapples in a regular builder's bucket. It's practical, but it's also a good way of measuring your haul - one builder's bucket holds enough crabapples for 12lb/6kg prepared weight, three times the recipe below. That gives a lot of finished jars of jelly!
We've noticed that the crabapples seem to hold much more juice if they're prepared and cooked on the same day that they're collected - even 24 hours later and they're noticeably drier when they're quartered. Jelly is thought of as a tricky thing to make but it's simple enough. You need a little bit of kit, but it's done in a few stages so it's not too complicated.
One thing I should add is that I think US and UK preserving methods may be slightly different. In the US, you're all much more used to canning than we are, so (from what I've seen on groups at least) you seem to process your jars after filling them whereas, in the UK, we sterilise our jars in the oven (method below) and pour the almost-boiling jelly straight into the hot jars and seal them. The method I'm describing is the UK method and uses UK measurements.
Pectin makes jams and jellies set but as crabapples are naturally high in pectin, you won't need to add any to the recipe. You can use ordinary granulated sugar, or jam sugar (which has pectin added and, even though it's not needed, it's fine if it's there) or, for the clearest jelly, use preserving sugar.
It goes without saying that extra care should be taken when boiling sugar. It's not a time for having kids and cats in the kitchen ... boiling sugar will stick to whatever it spills onto, skin included, and causes terrible burns. That said, there's no need to be scared of doing it, just think ahead and prepare your area. The resulting preserve is well worth the effort and once you've done it a few times, it's second nature.
- Large pan. I use a stockpot and that's suitable for the amount of crabapples in the recipe below. When you get to stage 3, a stockpot will take 2 pints/1 litre of juice and the sugar to go with it. I recommend this as a maximum amount at a time or it can become hard to get it up to the necessary temperature.
- Jelly bag and stand (recommended, but you can use also a muslin square tied to the legs of an upturned dining chair)
- Jam thermometer (optional but recommended)
- Jam funnel (to make jar filling much easier)
- Jars and lids
4lb/2kg crabapples (prepared weight)
4 pints/2 litres water
Wash the fruit and remove any particularly damaged or bruised pieces. Roughly quarter them (no need to peel or remove the pips) and weigh out 4lb/2kg. Place into a large pan with the water and cloves. Bring to the boil, then simmer gently, with a lid on, until the apples are completely soft and mushy. Give it all a stir every now and then to stop it from sticking to the base of the pan.
Set up a jelly bag on a stand (or muslin square with the four corners tied to an upturned dining chair) with a large jug beneath it.
Place the hot apple mixture into the jelly bag and allow the juice to trickle and drip into the jug below. The temperature of the mixture makes a big difference and as it cools, it will hang on to the juice more. It's tempting to squeeze the last of the juice out of the mixture, though this will make your jelly cloudier.
Wash your jars in warm soapy water and place them on a baking tray. Add about a centimetre or so or warm-hot water into each one. You need it to be fairly warm but not hot enough to crack the glass. Place the tray of jars into the oven and switch it on to the lowest setting. If you don't have a particularly low setting, leave the door slightly ajar to stop your jars overheating.
Place the washed lids (and ring seals if you're using Kilner jars which have two-piece lids) into a container and pour boiling water over to cover them. These can just be left in the hot water until you're ready for them.
Measure the juice and allow 1lb/450g sugar to every UK pint (20 fl oz)/500ml of juice. Heat the mixture very slowly, stirring, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Then you can add a jam thermometer and slowly increase the heat. You will find that a fine bubbly scum begins to rise to the surface. Skim this off with a spoon every now and then.
Increase the heat more, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and bring the mixture to a rolling boil. You'll know a rolling boil when you see it - the liquid literally does roll as it boils, and it will continue boiling unhindered when it's stirred. If you're using a jam thermometer, you want to bring it up to 220F which is the setting point for preserves like jams, jellies and marmalade. You can also test to see if you've reached that by placing a few drops onto a cold saucer (it helps if you pop one in the freezer just before starting). If it forms a skin which wrinkles when you push it, you've reached setting point.
Turn the heat off and let the bubbles die down, then do one more careful skim of any scum on the surface - don't stir it in. Carefully take your jars out of the oven and tip the water away. Use a jam funnel and ladle the hot jelly into the hot jars. Any little impurities or bubbles should rise to the top and you can remove this with a teaspoon. Carefully add the lids and tighten.
And you're done! Leave the jars to cool. It's so satisfying to hear the "pop, pop" as the lids seal :-)
Experiment with it - for our latest batch, we omitted the cloves and added a good helping each of sloes and rosehips which were collected on a walk along a prehistoric trackway. The colour is amazing! We gather, sparingly, from all manner of special places. Old holloways, hedgerows near significant places, or green spaces we hold dear. It's not just the apples which become preserved, it's a way of infusing the energies of the places which are loved.
Over time, the flavour of the crabapple jelly will deepen and change - it starts off as quite sugary and with a slight sharpness but becomes mellow and rounded as it matures. The colour also changes from that lovely light pink to a deep, dark red. We've successfully kept preserves for over a decade, though obviously, when you open a jar, check the seal is still intact and that it looks and smells as it should. As long as the seal remains good, they seem to get better and better as they age.