It started with Nigel Slater’s column in the Observer yesterday morning; although you might also say it started over a hundred years ago.
For a family that rarely cooks ‘British’ food (perhaps the odd Cottage Pie and only the very occasional roast with Yorkshire pudding) and delights mostly in the tastes of Italy and the Middle East, we’re remarkably traditional when it comes to crumble, and we like to eat crumble a lot. Since Nigel Slater (one of my favourite cookery writers) gave a crumble topping for damsons in the Observer back on 26 September 1999 (yes, I’ve still got the cutting!), we’ve rarely strayed from his crumble topping. And when we have, we’ve soon rushed back! Thus, imagine my excitement when yesterday’s Observer Magazine revealed a new crumble topping in Nigel’s column. There was no question … I had to to try it!
Nigel’s recipe was actually for a ‘Plum and Oat Crumble Tart’ but I decided to use just the topping for a crumble and not have the biscuit base. The topping I’ve used for years adds ground almonds to the flour and butter mix, but this new one added oats and pistachios too. I considered the plums … I even bought some plums … but as I was going round to my son’s for supper then really, I thought, I just had to make an apple crumble from the apples on his tree. I discussed with him whether to make it a plum & apple crumble but in the end we decided to give the apples the starring role … along with Nigel’s crumble topping, of course.
There aren’t many apples left on the tree now; the arrival of autumnal weather has brought them down fast, but we pick up the windfalls and mostly they’re perfectly good. Though a few remain on the tree, waiting to be picked.
The tree! When Jonathan and Lyndsey moved into their house in Whitton (part of Twickenham) last December, Jonathan was very excited to have an apple tree. It was clearly very old and in need of a good prune, so Jonathan got tree surgeon Clifford to come round, and by the time he left, the tree was a little diminished in size but beautiful in shape. The pruning was done early in the year; it has to be done before new buds appear or left until autumn. Soon there was a mass of pretty pink and white blossom; tiny apples started to appear. We watched them grow. Grandson Freddie (2½) was as excited as his dad; he kept pointing to it: ‘Apple tree!’ And then, not so long ago, the apples were ripe. We’ve no idea what variety they are but they’re delicious. We eat them ‘straight’, freeze some, make apple juice from them … and now the crumble.
The apple tree is just one of two in the road. Their lovely neighbour Gina next door told Jonathan that before the houses were built in the 1930s there was a market garden there with orchards and her and Jonathan’s trees are the only ones left. (That’s why this story partly started over a hundred years ago!) I thought this so interesting I turned to Google and discovered the Borough of Twickenham Local History Society (there is no longer a Twickenham borough; it’s become part of Richmond upon Thames). We already knew from Gina about the market gardens but now I discovered their extent: orchards and fields of fruit and flowers spanning a large area from Twickenham to Whitton to Isleworth. ‘Market gardening in Whitton,’ the society’s page told me, ‘reached its zenith in the 1870s.’ Produce was carried to the Covent Garden market, still in central London at this time, often by women who carried bundles weighing 40lbs on their heads. At this time Whitton and the surrounding area was known as ‘the garden of England’ – a title I’ve only ever known as belonging to Kent, the county that eventually took over the mantle. By 1900 almost all of this ‘green and pleasant’ local farming land was gone. But Jonathan and Gina’s trees remain … and their apples make a very wonderful apple crumble!
Apples with an Oat & Nut Crumble Topping
- about 6 large apples
- 65g butter
- 85g plain flour
- 40g oats
- 30g ground almonds
- 30g pistachios, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons caster sugar
- 2 tablespoons water
Mix the butter and flour together into coarse crumbs, either by hand or in a processor. Now add all the other ingredients except the water. I wasn’t sure how to ‘shred’ the pistachios as instructed in the recipe, so I finely chopped. I also added some sugar, which Nigel didn’t, as the old recipe has sugar and I thought I’d like a little.
Fold it all together until evenly mixed.
At this point the mix travelled with me the mile to Jonathan’s house where Jonathan was lighting the barbecue and Freddie – who likes to watch Fireman Sam – was shouting ‘fire’, ‘fire’, ‘Call Fireman Sam!’. We have to assure him it’s good to tell us about the fire but it’s OK, not to worry, Daddy is very careful and it’s a special fire for cooking. Once the barbecue was in order, slowing cooking some marinated lamb leg, Jonathan and I gathered apples. He peeled, I chopped.
We used about 6 large apples in all, putting the chopped pieces straight into a shallow baking dish. I didn’t add any sugar as the apples were sweet. When I thought we had enough, I added the 2 tablespoons of water to the crumble mix and spread it across the top of the apples.
I cooked it for about 40 minutes at a 200C/180 Fan/Gas 6 in their oven … but it’s an old oven (a new one is in the pipeline!) and at home I would have used a lower temperature – 180C/160 Fan/Gas 4 (as Nigel does in his recipe). Crumbles are very forgiving though … you don’t want the temperature too high or the fruit will bubble out too much and you want a bit of heat to nicely brown it.
I’d asked my son whether we should have cream or custard with it. I knew the answer. He always wants custard with crumble; not the homemade, from scratch variety, but Bird’s instant custard powder custard. Some loves of childhood never die.
The crumble was amazing. The apples were gorgeous but we all loved the crumble topping: so crunchy and tasty and great with our apples. I can see this will be our new favourite crumble.