Small and sour, Malus sylvestris isn’t the most palatable of foraged finds, admits John Wright, but it’s amazing what a little added sugar can do

Crab, scrab, bittersgall, gribble, sour-grabs, scarb, scrogg.” Not the relief fire brigade team from Trumpton, but county names for crab apples, courtesy of Geoffrey Grigson’s The Englishman’s Flora. Such a list indicates a fruit that has enjoyed a long association with man or, at least, Englishmen.

In fact, being a plant of temperate climes, it is likely to have been an early coloniser of Britain once the 
ice had receded, and evidence of its early use exists in the form of pip marks on Bronze Age pottery. I wonder what those ancient people would have thought of the infinitely superior russet…

With no such comparison to make, they were probably content enough with the flavour, and certainly with the enormous number of crab apples produced by a well-appointed tree — 500 easily. Corrupted as we are by our often sugary diet, crab apples are sour things indeed. They are also hard, small and with little flesh left once the tough skin, pips and ‘toenails’ are negotiated. Few people collect them and it is easy to see why.

The crab apple, Malus sylvestris, is not the ancestral form of the cultivated apple, M domestica. The latter is a development of M sieversii, a species from central Asia. However, Malus species hybridise recklessly and crab apple gene sequences have been discovered in the cultivated apple, so it is not clear-cut.

Distinguishing crab apples

Distinguishing the two species is not always easy. Examined through a lens, M domestica can be seen to possess fine, downy hair (pubescent) on the underside of its leaves and on its petioles (leaf stems) while M sylvestris is smooth (glabrous). The latter may also have spines.

Should you find a crab apple tree, laden with fruit or not, it is worth taking a close look. This small tree hosts about 30 species of micro-fungi and countless insects, many of which form galls. Plants are much more interesting when they are infected with diseases and pests.

Despite wild apple trees conspicuously decorating hedgerows and roadsides in late summer and most of autumn, they are seldom crab apple trees, but ‘wildings’, the offspring of discarded domestic apple cores. The true crab apple is by contrast moderately uncommon and largely restricted to woodland edges, scrub and internal farm hedges. Matters are confused further by the worrying (for conservationists) issue of the gene-line of M sylvestris being corrupted by that of M domestica, with pure-bred trees now being rare.

Crab apples on tree

A well-appointed tree can produce an enormous number of crab apples

Tasting wildings crab apples

Apples do not breed true, so a wilding apple (or any apple) will seldom bear much resemblance to those of its parent tree. For the ever-practical forager, however, priggish concerns over parentage or purity are of no interest — an apple must be judged on its merits.

I have tasted scores of wildings over the years. Some are perfectly edible; some are merely passable. 
A fair proportion, however, are inferior to the crab apple in that 
they are tasteless. We may not much like the taste of the crab apple, but
 at least it has one. Next time you see 
a wilding on your walk, do try it — 
you may be lucky.

Recipes for crab apples

I need not tell you what to do with a wild apple, which makes either a tasty enough dessert apple or a cooker. But for crab apples or exceptionally sour, hard or small wildings, some advice may be welcome. Crab apple jelly is the obvious first thought. Makers of this excellent accompaniment to pork, lamb or game fall into two categories: the drippers and the squeezers. The former gently stew apples in enough water to cover them, mash them up and suspend them in a muslin bag over a preserving pan.

Anything that remains in the bag after a few hours is discarded. As a confirmed squeezer in all such situations, I squeeze as much pulp through the muslin as possible. My jellies are a bit cloudy, but there is much less waste. Sugar is added to the juice — 750g for every litre — and the whole stirred and boiled until a jam set is achieved.

Several hedgerow fruits are, like crab apples, tricky to use or come in such vast quantities that every and any use must be found for them.Haws, rowan berries, elderberries, blackberries and bullaces are typical examples. Rescue comes in the form of fruit leather — a hedgerow snack that even children will relish. Everything is stewed up in a lidded pot with a little water to prevent sticking. Once cooked to softness, all is mashed with a potato masher and pushed through 
a sieve. For the sweet-toothed, sugar can be dissolved in the purée. The paste is spread flat and thin (3mm-4mm) on baking parchment and dried in a very low oven — overnight usually does it.

Crab apple cider

For the home cider-maker, crab apples are useful if dessert apples are used in place of traditional cider apples. About 15% crab apples will greatly improve the texture of the pomace (not so squishy) and add much-needed tannin to the cider. It is likely that cider-makers saw these advantages in the past as the trees were sold alongside cider apple trees in the 19th century.

homemade crab apple liqueur

After slicing the crab apples, John puts them in a jar, adding sugar at intervals before filling with vodka, producing a delicious liqueur

Recipe for crab apple liqueur

One recipe I make every year is 
crab apple liqueur. After a thorough clean, I slice them on a mandolin and place them in large Kilner jars with sugar added at intervals. Once the jars are full of apple slices and sugar, vodka is added right to the top and the lid closed. It needs a quick shake every day for a week or two then left for six months for the flavours to settle. This is great stuff and I highly recommend it. Some people suggest using whisky instead, but that blessed drink is best kept to itself. If anyone asks if I would like something with my whisky, 
I always say, “More whisky.”