Sin, Immortality and Good Teeth: How Apples Still Drive Us  

How many lunch boxes have apples in them, I wonder. Not as squashy as bananas or plums, not as juicy as satsumas or peaches, apples are the perfect travelling fruit. As children we were told that they kept our teeth clean. Even better than that, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Statistically, that claim has been proven to be true. Though nobody is really sure why, as apples are not the most vitamin-enriched fruits when compared to bananas or oranges. Perhaps they have some divine nutrient.

We are all aware of the apple being the fruit that led mankind into sin when Eve offered it to Adam. The Anglo-Saxons and Norse folk believed in a goddess called Idunn who kept some very special apples. They had the power of eternal youth and the gods needed them to keep alive, as the Norse and Anglo-Saxon gods were not immortal as many other gods appear to be. The god of mischief, Loki, had fun with Idunn and the magic apples, according to the Old Norse manuscripts. Idunn is a major feature in my book The Dark Garden.

26 September is the birthday of another special apple person, a man known as Johnny Appleseed. His real name was John Chapman and for forty years he travelled through America planting apple trees and handing out apple tree seeds. More than this, he continued to take care of the saplings as they grew, pruning and caring for them and helping the new settlers to create orchards. Born in 1774, Johnny Appleseed has become an American folk hero.

In a month’s time we will be celebrating harvest by playing ‘duck-apple’ where we will try to catch floating apples with our teeth – more about that in October. The best thing about apples? Apple pie with custard. Mmm…

Wassail Recipes for Twelfth Night

I’m always in favour of maintaining fun traditions as long as no suffering is involved. In my house we celebrate a host of festivals from different countries and faiths, but my favourite seem to gravitate towards those from Bristish history. Well, I am a British historian after all.

December and January top the list for great things to eat and drink as there were so many celebrations and much feasting. One of the most festive drinks is wassail. (See what it’s all about here.)

We don’t do the slaughter anymore, just the drinking and sometimes scaring away the bad spirits. If you like the original gruesome stuff see my book The Dark Garden. The recipes varied from region to region, but I have chosen a couple of my favourites here. Enjoy.


This recipe crops up a lot, so I find it difficult to source. In Anglo-Saxon times, my guess is that honey or mead was used in place of sugar (which wasn’t brought to England for quite a few hundred years later). The orange is mostly for decorative purposes but does add an extra element. Often the toast was floated on the top.


  • 4 small apples

  • 1/4 cup unrefined cane sugar

  • 1 medium orange

  • 13 whole cloves

  • 2 quarts hard apple cider

  • 1/2 cup brandy

  • 1 tbsp powdered ginger

  • 1 tsp grated nutmeg

  • 6 allspice berries

  • 2 cinnamon sticks

  • 6 large eggs, (separated)

  • toast, (optional, to serve with)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F/ 180 degrees C.

  2. Scoop out the core of the apples without fully penetrating the apple – a melon baller works well. Fill each apple with about a tablespoon of unrefined cane sugar. Place the apples in the baking sheet. Stud an orange with thirteen cloves and place it in the baking sheet. Bake the apples and orange together for forty minutes.

  3. While the apples and orange bake, pour apple cider and brandy into a heavy-bottomed stock pot and warm over moderately low heat. Whisk in powdered ginger and grated nutmeg. Do not bring the wassail to a boil.

  4. Cut a small square of the butter muslin and place allspice and cinnamon into the square; tie with 100% cotton cooking twine and float this sachet of spices in the wassail as it warms.

  5. Beat egg yolks until light in color and set aside. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold egg yolks into whites, then temper the eggs by slowly pouring one-half cup wassail into the eggs. Remove the spice sachet from the wassail and pour in the tempered eggs. Transfer to a punch bowl. Float baked apples and orange in the wassail and serve by the mug, topping each much with a small slice of toast if desired.

This recipe is simpler. It is by Jonathan Goodall, columnist for Saga Magazine.

  • 6 small cooking apples, cored

  • 125g (4½oz) demerara sugar

  • 1.5 litres (3 x 500ml bottles) of rich, fruity ale (I used a mix of Abbot Ale and Old Speckled Hen) or cider

  • ½ grated nutmeg

  • 1 tsp freshly grated or ground ginger

  • Cinnamon sticks, to serve


1.  Preheat the oven to 120C/250F/gas mark ½. Bake the cored apples on a      lightly greased baking tray for about 1 hour, until soft and easy to              peel.

2.  Meanwhile, put the sugar into a large heavy-based saucepan and cover         with a small amount of  ale. Heat this gently, stirring until the sugar            dissolves.

3.  Add the grated nutmeg, ginger and the rest of the ale. Stir and keep at a       gentle simmer.

4.  Cool the baked apples for about 10 minutes, then peel, reserving a few         strips, and blend to a soft purée. Add this to the simmering ale                       and whisk thoroughly.

5.  Leave to gently simmer for about 30 minutes. The frothy apples should         rise to the surface. Ladle into sturdy glasses and serve with                               cinnamon-stick stirrers and a strip of peel.

I wonder if there are any more future-favourites out there? Waes hail!

(c) 2016 A.J. Sefton

How it’s all just a Variation on the Fountain of Youth

Serums, detox, essential oils. Ah, the quest for eternal youth. I read today in the newspapers that people are reducing their use of Botox, the injected poison that removes lines by freezing muscles to leave a smooth complexion. These people have realised that after a few times of using this substance they cease to look young, merely smooth and slightly odd.

I can’t blame anyone for wanting to hold onto their youth. Not only wrinkles but creaking bones, aches and pains as well as a host of other ailments are not things anyone would desire. I think this doesn’t apply to me – until I cannot remember where I have placed my glasses, which reminds me of my failing eyesight and memory. We all wish to sup from the Fountain of Youth from time to time.

The ‘Fountain of Youth’ is a mythological spring that promises to restore youth to those who bathe or drink it. These stories have been known in all cultures and have gone back a long time. Records show that there have been tales about such springs that have existed for thousands of years in Europe, Asia and the Americas. And it was not just mankind who concerned with the search. Norse gods, who were not immortal, needed special apples to maintain youth and immortality. The Goddess Idunn supplied these until she was kidnapped by the mischievous Loki. Read about this is my book The Dark Garden – I’m just about to come up to that part.

This search for youth has been a fantastic theme and topic for storytellers, as the records show. Such tales as those about Alexander the Great and more modern ones like The Well at the World’s End by William Morris, Doctor Heidegger’s Experiment by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Magic Spring by Nami Rhee, a retelling of an old Korean folk story.

On similar theme is my favourite story and only published novel by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is a twisted version of the theme, but I like it. The story is about a young man who has his beauty and youth captured in a painting. Someone suggests to Dorian Gray that the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and hedonism. Gray sells his soul so that he may keep his beauty, but the painting changes into the face of his soul. Gray leads an immoral lifestyle and each sinful act is reflected in the painting by disfiguring his face with the aging process. A great Gothic novel. In the story, the painting becomes so grotesque that Gray hides it in the attic. I have many portraits in the attic. Fortunately they look better than I do. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually make me feel any better.

Of course these myths do have fragments of truth in them. For a youthful complexion and body you need to drink and bathe in pure water, nothing that will give you a disease. Mineral water is known to be therapeutic and help with joint problems. Apples, as I discussed last month, keep the doctor away. But most of all, a good soul means that your portraits will be forever young.