Sour crabs and Scotch dumplings: lookin' for apples

Sour crabs and Scotch dumplings

Once every household had a repertoire of recipes to make the most of an annual glut. Now they are a year-round supermarket staple, yet rarely sourced from Britain, never mind Scotland. Catharina Day hunts for apples.

The native apple of Scotland was the sour crab, useful in a piquant chutney, although the largely temperate climate of Scotland meant the Romans bought their sweeter apples north. Later it was the monastic houses of the Benedictines and Cistercians that preserved the improved varieties during the Dark Ages.

As apples do not come true to seed, over the centuries many new local apple varieties have evolved. If worthwhile they were propagated, so we have the bitter sweet cookers such as Scotch dumpling, East Lothian pippin and beauty of Moray. One of the delicious eaters grown in Scotland is the bloody ploughman, said to have appeared as a seedling growing on a midden in the Carse of Gowrie in 1880. The trees boast the brightest of ribbed red apples – splendid when full of fruit – and the flesh is spicy and sweet, especially if not stored long. The story goes that a ploughman stole some apples and was hung for it, but this new variety gave him immortality.

The Oslin/Arbroath Pippin bred by the Cistercians is an exquisite tasting apple with a sharpness and spice that is sadly lacking in the imported Braeburn or Granny Smith. The orchard nursery run by John Butterworth in Ayrshire is a treasure of old and new Scottish varieties and he has had much experience in choosing varieties to suit each area of Scotland.

The United Kingdom imports about 75 per cent of its apples, which means that many Scots never taste local varieties. The Clyde valley and the Carse of Gowrie, once scattered with orchards, no longer grow fruit for the marketplace. Gradually, however, local varieties are finding outlets in farm shops, farmers’ markets, direct from the orchard owner and local organic box schemes. The Children’s Orchard, based in Glasgow, is helping to set up a network of orchards working with schools, communities, landowners and local authorities to provide places for children and others to experience the magic of orchards through the seasons, to play there, pick the fruit and eat or juice it.

Butterworth’s Organic Nursery is located on Auchinleck House Estate, Cumnock, Ayrshire, (

● More on the Children’s Orchard can be found at

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