This week, I had a mind to make a crumble. Here’s my recipe. I hope you enjoy.
An Apple Crumble in a Pandemic
1 large windfall from Grange Road Cemetery
Sweet eaters (and a stray pear) from your veg box
A handful of pre-lockdown raspberries
350g emergency plain flour
1 pack unsalted butter
Leftover brown sugar
2 mixing bowls
1 oven dish
1 sharp knife, to pare away the squirrels’ tooth-marks
1. Go for a walk in Grange Road Cemetery one quiet weekday morning before work. ‘The dead have never scared me,’ writes Scottish forensic anthropologist Sue Black in her memoir All That Remains, ‘but the living are terrifying.’ You are not quite there yet, but you have tired of dodging the runners who gasp too closely, of ducking onto the road, of wishing you had brought a mask. Peace is in the graveyards.
Enter via the gate opposite vacant Marchmont Market, and take a turn to the right. Wander down the gravestones, and look at the names. McCleods and MacKays abound. Geography feels strong here. Peer at dates, at 1918 and 1942, at Spanish flu and capsized ships. We have survived things before. We will again.
At the bottom of the gravel path, the sun in your eyes, trip over something in your path: a huge apple, half-demolished by squirrels and blackbirds. Looking up, you see the tree, fruiting with abundance, each one the size of your palm.
Pick the one that is least pecked. Feel the weight of it in your hand, and think of crumble, of apple sauce. It is green and red in its shining skin. You feel the gift of it, released to the ground, a silent thump heard only by the ears of the dead.
At home, wash your windfall thoroughly and cut away the part the squirrels gnawed. Cut into four enormous quarters. Peel. This is a cooking apple. You can tell by the green under the skin, the sharpness of the smell, the crispness beneath the knife. Cut into small chunks, half an inch across. Place in a big Pyrex bowl.
2. Back in August, you ordered a veg box so that you would not have to face the shops this autumn, to mask up and wear gloves, and peel off both, and remember what has been touched, by what. Instead, there is a cardboard box, each week, at your door. You have never been grateful like this for food. Your gratitude is quiet. Sober.
Peer in last week’s box, now. There are a handful of small, sweet apples; a stray pear that you have not yet eaten between online meetings. Quarter them, and core, and quarter again. Don’t bother with peeling these. Life is too short. (The dead agree.)
3. Look, in your freezer, for the raspberries you didn’t finish at the beginning of March when your sister last came to dinner. Throw them in.
You remember that night. It was the last time you hugged her. She was wearing her raincoat, and those boots from Office. You remember how her helmet clattered against the wall as she went downstairs. Now it is October, and you are making crumble.
4. You want flour – a lot of flour – because your crumble is, by God, going to be crumbly. It’s the emergency flour you bought in March. You are glad to use it. Toss it in the other mixing bowl, and toss in the quarter of that ancient packet of brown sugar, too. How much? Who knows. It finishes the packet. It will do.
5. Butter. A lot of butter. If you get it out of the fridge when you get home from the library, and leave it sitting until after dinner when you make your crumble, it will be the perfect temperature.
Cut the block into rows, then tip it over the other way and cut again. Throw the cubes, a few at a time, into your flour and sugar. Knead with your fingers. A few more. Squish until it looks like breadcrumbs, some large, some small. This part is great. Mindfulness of squishing.
6. Take your oven dish, and tip your fruit into the bottom. The apples are browning a little; don’t worry. Pour in the crumble over the top, and toss it about so it’s evenly spread. Place it in the oven, fan, at 180. Set your timer for an hour.
While you wait, WhatsApp your family, a few hundred miles away. They are two households, both alike in appreciating a good dessert, sitting down – socially distanced – to baked custard.
Send them pictures of yours. They will send theirs back to you.
You can smell the crumble.
7. Extract it when the fruit is bubbling, and the crumble is browned. A proper spoonful of it for your plate, now. The fruit is pink from the raspberries, and it smells sweet, treacly, from the leftover brown sugar. Have cream, or yoghurt. A good scoop. MacKay and McCleod would want you to.
When you eat it, it tastes like apples, and childhood; like butter, and the sun in Grange Road Cemetery. It tastes like an apple crumble in a pandemic. It tastes like a gift.
I wish you comforting autumnal food, and windfalls, this week.