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Award-winning food writer Nicola Miller laments the loss of acres of Suffolk orchards, while celebrating the apple with a tasty cake recipe.





When my grandmother moved here from the Midlands, she worked for the old Cramphorns garden centre in Newton Road, near Sudbury, and became a competent nurserywoman, growing and grafting roses and fruit trees. Prior to this, she worked in a nursery filled with children instead of plants. Her friend Kay lived and worked at the same place, her home a bungalow on its grounds surrounded by thousands of rose bushes and prehistoric conifers.

Every day, Kay and my grandmother had to tweeze thorns from their bodies. Their hands and arms were tanned to mahogany and sticky with pine resin that oozed from thousands of conifer cuttings. There’d be smoky bonfires of rose prunings (which must be swiftly destroyed lest they spread disease), and we’d eat potatoes and salads dug straight from the ground. Kay planted radishes – small breakfast ones, pink and golden – and butter lettuces. She’d use a small pair of rose clippers to snip chives onto our plates. There was the geometric patchwork of fruit trees, neat lines of roses and rows of strawberries cossetted in straw, and in the distance, sugarbeet, wheat and corn fields rose and fell towards Boxford. It seemed as if the production of food dominated almost every vision of the landscape.

East Anglians of a certain age may remember the drive from Sudbury to Colchester along Newton Road, which in summer would be perfumed with the scent of flowers and ripening fruit from the acres of orchards and rose and fruit bushes that edged its route. Today, the fields of Cramphorns roses have been grubbed up, as have many orchards. Over time commercial fruit-growing around the Suffolk/Essex border has declined. However, some orchards remain to produce apples for apple juice-making at Copella and fruits for Tiptree & Sons, near Colchester. Peter Wheldon’s pick-your-own at Ley’s Farm, whose apple and pear orchards surrounded Cramphorns, has closed down, and the land, upon which generations of fruit trees and bushes grew, all of which had their own stories, has reverted to arable use. That closure hurt.

Apple, ricotta and marjoram cake with a burnt honey glaze
Apple, ricotta and marjoram cake with a burnt honey glaze

No more paper cartons of Wheldon’s strawberries and tubs of Suffolk Jersey cream for pudding. No more locally-grown heritage Beurre Hardy pears with their fat, luscious bottoms, distinct flavour of rosewater and flesh that yields like butter in the summer heat. No more Wheldons holiday jobs for teenagers. The East of England Apple and Orchards Project claims the acreage of Suffolk’s orchards has decreased by more than 50 per cent over the last 50 years. Over the last two centuries, Suffolk has given rise to 11 apple varieties, including St Edmund’s Russett, Miller’s Red Seedling (which arose as a sport on a tree owned by Peter Wheldon), and Late Gold, a cider apple. Six varieties have been lost. “Some of these ‘lost’ varieties were last recorded less than a century ago,” their website says. The project’s orchard at West Raynham in Norfolk holds examples of around 270 varieties of apple, pear, plum and cherry varieties from all over East Anglia.

To refashion food writer Jane Grigson’s words on fruit to suit the mood: “The season is gone before we have made the most of it.” A resurgence of interest in jam-making at home makes the loss of fruit varieties even more frustrating, although efforts are being made to reintroduce and grow them again – Copella grows 25 varieties of apple. The rose fields haven’t completely disappeared, either. Cants of Colchester still grow roses – a Vogue shoot with then supermodels Lily Cole, Jacquetta Wheeler, Erin O’Connor and photographer Tim Walker took place in their fields in 2004. Walker returned to Cants in 2008 to shoot a Tim Burton-themed Hallowe’en story for Harpers Bazaar with giant skeletons looming over models Malgosia Bela, Evelina Mambetova and Sophie Srej.

So, if it is terrible that orchards are in decline and the battle to retain old British fruit varieties continues, why am I offering you a recipe for a cake made with Granny Smiths, a variety non-indigenous to the United Kingdom? Its easy availability is its strength, alongside a bright, sharp flavour and crisp flesh that bakes well. If you do not live in an area well-served with farm shops, farmers’ markets and independent stores selling less common apple varieties, it can be frustrating when recipe writers focus solely on them. I have been guilty of this, so I wanted to develop a more accessible recipe for apple cake. Granny Smiths are excellent keepers; we should celebrate that, and they are so bright and vibrant, which I want most in an apple. I like my mouth to water when I imagine biting into one; I like that slight fizzing, prickling sensation as your salivary glands pulse in anticipation. By all means, buy rarer apple varieties when you see them and if their flesh stays fairly firm when baked, use them instead of Granny Smiths.

This is a tolerant cake whose flavours improve if you bake it one day and eat it the next. It doesn’t matter if it looks a little rough around the edges or if the apple slices catch a little in the oven’s heat. The ricotta adds lactic tenderness whilst marjoram’s sweet citrus-pine flavours complement the bright green apple. You’ll get the best flavour if you prepare the marjoram sugar the day before, making sure you pick young marjoram leaves. Avoid the older, larger, more strongly-scented ones further down each stem. A burnt honey glaze brushed onto the finished cake adds smoky notes of autumn. You’ll need to watch the honey like a hawk as it heats because there’s a fine line between complex smokiness and bitter burn.

APPLE, RICOTTA AND MARJORAM CAKE WITH A BURNT HONEY GLAZE

Ingredients:

1½ generous tablespoons of young marjoram leaves

100g golden caster sugar

120g salted, soft butter

250g ricotta

3 medium eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

200g plain white flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon bicarb of soda

A large Granny Smith or apple of your choice, cored but not peeled

A tablespoon melted butter to brush onto the apple slices

Method:

Take the sugar, place it in a processor with the marjoram leaves and pulse until they are blended. You can also do this with a pestle and mortar. Store in an airtight container until you are ready to use it.

Heat your oven to 180C/350F and line the base of a 24cm springform pan. Grease its sides with butter.

In a large bowl (I use a mixer), cream the butter and marjoram sugar for four minutes on medium speed. You want it to be really fluffy.

Add the ricotta and mix for one minute. Add the eggs one at a time and vanilla extract and mix for another two minutes. Scrape down the bowl from time to time to ensure everything is incorporated.

Add the flour, baking powder and bicarb and mix at a low speed until the flour is thoroughly mixed in and no traces of it show. Don’t overmix.

Pour the batter into your tin and use a spatula to smooth the top.

Very thinly slice the Granny Smith into rounds and arrange them in a pattern of your choice on top of the batter. Brush them with melted butter.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. I start testing at 30 minutes using a skewer poked into the middle of the cake. If the skewer comes out clean, your cake is done. If the apples look like they are browning too swiftly, cover the top of the cake with some foil and remove it five minutes before the end of baking.

Leave the cake to cool down completely before removing it from the tin. For the honey glaze:

2 tablespoons of runny honey (I use honey with smoky, fruity notes – Mexican Yucatan honey from Waitrose is a favourite. Don’t use chestnut honey because it will be too intense).

Place the honey in a heavy-based small saucepan.

Heat over medium-high heat, stirring continuously until the honey has darkened and smells rich. This will only take two minutes. Remove from the heat and decant into a small bowl. Paint the honey over the apple-topped cake with a pastry brush.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020

Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer of the Year 2022