At the heart of the Hollies stood a crooked wooden column, splitting and hunched under a thousand years (it seemed to me) of weight. To it were pinned postcards from all over the world, sent to this corner of Essex by friends of my grandparents. The column marked an invisible line – on one side of it sat a constellation of over-stuffed armchairs and a deeply resonant grandfather clock that made me shiver with apprehension, whilst the other was open floor leading to the staircase and a dark, formal dining room.
There were the outdoor coal cellars full of black dust and cobwebs, where my dad and I rediscovered an old steam-powered toy train, a freezing pantry packed to the rafters with mysterious jars and homemade jams, the orchard out front where I first shot a gun and a bright conservatory full of the smell of orange zest and tea. It was from this base – this old tumbledown country pile where my father had been born in 1948 and my grandparents had lived ever since – that we’d venture out to the Tendring Hundred Show.
The Tendring Hundred is a farmer’s club in Essex and their show is a celebration of heavy machinery, prize livestock and overjoyed, muddy city children revelling in their one or two days of agricultural exposure. My grandfather would walk, slightly stooped and to me impossibly aged, amongst the stallholders, still wearing his bowler hat and a burgundy shield badge that marked him out as some Tendring Hundred dignitary. He’d taste cheeses, examine gnarled bovine teeth and pat giant tyres, though I could never understand quite what he was looking for.
It’s the smell of the place that stays with me – that wet dirt stink of 500 men and a thousand animals in one field, the heavy reek of diesel. But, curling through the agricultural and industrial murk, the sweet-sharp smell of real apple juice cut the air, one day from the tree and full of spine and heart. It’s that smell and that taste that I’m trying to evoke here, in an Essex tarte tatin.
Essex Tarte Tatin
- 6 sharp-ish eating apples, cored and sliced
- 75g salted butter
- 60g (ish) golden caster sugar or brown sugar. Not muscovado.
- A healthy glug of calvados or brandy
- A little lemon zest
- A few leaves of fresh mint
- 1/4tsp ground ginger
- 1/4tsp ground cloves
- 1/2tsp cinnamon
- One pack shop bought puff pastry
- One egg
Preheat the oven to 220ºc.
Melt the butter in a non stick, oven proof frying pan over a medium heat. When it starts to bubble and foam, add the sugar and stir – be careful, the butter and sugar combo is hotter than the heart of the sun and it will spit sometimes. Stir constantly, until the mixture is smooth and turning dark. Add the glug of brandy, followed by all the apples – it will look like too much but as they cook the apples release their juices, shrinking and creating a sauce simultaneously. Add the lemon, mint and the spices.
Stir, ensuring that all the apples are properly coated in the sticky, apple-y, boozey caramel. Cook down, stirring frequently, until the apples are soft and dark and the sauce – which will have become more liquid as the apples released their juices – has boiled back down to a thick caramel. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little.
Drape the pastry across the pan, then tuck the sides down into the pan, forming a tight seal around the mound of apples. Trim any excess, but make sure there is still pastry coming up the sides of the pan – this forms a delicious, crispy lip. Brush with beaten egg and prick all over, otherwise the pastry will steam rather than going crisp.
Bake in the center of the oven for 25 minutes or until crisp and golden all over. Turn out onto a plate and serve with ice cream.