A couple of years ago, completely hidden in a dark thicket of trees, I discovered a beautiful gnarled crabapple – gleaming with clusters of hundreds & hundreds of rosy, autumn fruits. I was thrilled! I love crisp truly tart apples (which are getting harder to find) so the crabapple fits the bill perfectly.
Crabapples are the original wild apples, from which all our sweet plump modern apples descend, and while these tiny jewels are mouth-puckeringly sour when raw, they retain their tang wonderfully when cooked. And while they will still ripen and plumpen for the next month, I harvested a few of the reddest for these Mabon Wild Apple Hand Pies. And for a little touch of harvest magic, I added rosemary – one of the traditional herbs of Mabon.
Mabon is the modern pagan name for the old Anglo-Celtic harvest festivals usually occurring on or roundabout the Autumn Equinox. And while we’re not sure what it was originally called, it marks the time of some of the oldest harvest celebrations in Europe. And there can be no perfect food for celebrating the official arrival of fall. Associated with harvest festivals since time immemorial, apples were an important food that could be stored and dried to make it through the lean winter months. But they also served an important ritual function in honouring the ancestors, an important part of harvest holidays, one of the most familiar being Samhain or Halloween.
Dating back to prehistory, crabapples were offered as food for the dead. The Celts and the Norse left them as grave offerings (petrified remains of sliced crabapples in burials dating back to 5000 BC). During “Mabon” in Ireland and parts of Scotland, it was customary for women to visit burial mounds, called cairns, to honour dead ancestors, especially female ones. According to folklore, all human souls were reabsorbed into the wombs which bore them, and therefore, only women inhabited the Land of the Dead!
“Mabon” was also known as Witches Thanksgiving and crabapples were important for that other important feminine activity – divination. Young women used them to spell out the initials of their prospective lovers, and by peeling an apple in front of the mirror and throwing it over the left shoulder, a young maiden can recognize the initials of her future husband. A fermented alcoholic crabapple cider known as Witches Brew was consumed to provide inspiration for prophecy.
The apple’s association with witches is often attributed to the five-pointed star or pentacle found at the centre of its core, which dates back to prehistory as a symbol of the Goddess. This mimics the pattern of the great feminine planet Venus as it moves about the sun every eight years. And for ancient goddesses from Isis, Ishtar, Astarte, Venus, Aphrodite, Diana, Pomona, Hera, Indunn and Freya – and many more – the apple was the fruit of immortality itself.
In Celtic legends, there is an Isles of Apples or Avalon (a word meaning apple) where youth is eternal. Apples growing here satisfied all hunger and healed all ills. According to Arthurian literature, the Isle of Apples was home to the Fairy Queen Morgan Le Fay. Known as Queen of the Apples, she guarded this ancient magic along with nine priestesses, keeping it safe during the encroachment of Christianity.
The Goddess of Norse mythology, Iðunn (the rejuvenating one) was the keeper of a box of apples which the gods, when they felt old age approaching, “have only to taste of to become young again”. Hera, Queen of the Greek Pantheon, had orchards of precious apple trees guarded by a fierce dragon, these were golden, tasted like honey, and granted eternal life.
The Crab Apple is a member of the Rose family ( which includes other magical trees, such as Rowan and Hawthorn) and grew wild across North America, Europe and Western Asia. They were one of nine great magical herbs of Anglo-Saxon Charms, thought to banish evil and heal all ills. Here on Vancouver Island, the Pacific Crabapple is one of the oldest varieties in the world. Growing along the British Columbia coast, the crabapple was much used by our local first peoples. The fruit was harvested in early fall and eaten fresh or stored in boxes underwater. Today, threatened by forestry it is an endangered species.
Crabapples like all wild fruits are nutritional powerhouses. Packed with nutrients and medicinal components they aid in digestion, cleanse the blood, strengthen the body’s overall immunity, bolster bone strength and support eye and heart health.
For this recipe, I used a variety of ornamental and wild crabapples harvested from local trees, and you can use any variety of crabapple you have handy. And if you don’t have access to crabapples, any tart green apple, like Granny Smith will do. (These are most closely related to the wild apple!)
Apple and rosemary are a famous flavour combination, especially in jelly, but here rosemary (as the herb of remembrance) also serves as a dash of plant magic! Of course, the five-pointed star, I’ve cut out at the centre of these pies is inspired by the magical pentacle of the ancient goddesses.
Called the star of Ishtar or of Isis, its Venusian energy aligns with matters of love, artistic expression, sensual pleasures, beauty, joy, harmony, healing and health. All good things to carry into the coming dark half of the year!
So to celebrate the turn of the great wheel of the year into autumn, these crabapple pies are a wonderful way to remember and honour the old harvest rites. And as falling leaves signal the dying back of the old year, the apple reminds us that there is no death in the eternal circle of life.
Crabapple & Rosemary Tarts
- About a 1 1/2 lb – 2 lbs of crabapples (depending on size)
- 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
- 1 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
- 1 tsp freshly grated cinnamon
- 1 tsp. cardamom
- 3 tsp of minced fresh rosemary
- 1 stick butter
- 1 egg, lightly beaten, for brushing
- coarse sugar to sprinkle
- 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cubed into 1-inch pieces
- 1 cup cold water
- 1 cup ice
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Place dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Cut in butter with a pastry blender. Be careful not to overwork, and make sure you have small pieces or clumps of butter still visible in your dough. Drizzle in your vinegar and ice water slowly, cutting into flour, a little bit at a time. Keep adding until your dough has formed and is easily pliable. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate while you prepare your filling.
- Core and cut apples in halves and quarters, making sure they are approximately the same size. Don’t forget to squeeze lemon juice over the apples as you go (to prevent browning.) Add zest, salt, sugars, nutmeg, cinnamon, and rosemary, and stir to combine.
- Place your butter in a saucepan and melt over medium heat. Add your crabapple mixture. Let cook until the apples are soft and you have a thick syrupy sauce of caramelized butter and sugar in your pan. Put aside to cool.
- Divide your chilled dough into four. Flour your working area take one portion and roll out about 1/8-inch thick. Using a large circular mason jar lid or the mouth of a wide glass cut out your circles. Transfer the dough on parchment to baking sheets and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
- Remove and fill half your dough circles with apple filling – make sure you leave room around the perimeter for pinching. Cut out your stars from half of the circles and put the dough stars aside. Using a pastry brush dipped in water (or your finger) wet the perimeters of your circles and then place the tops over the fruit. Seal the fruit by pinching the edges together with a fork (or again your fingers!) Place dough stars on top of some of your pastry circles. (leave a few with no cut-outs).
- Brush a beaten egg over the surface of the tops of your dough circles and scatter coarse sugar to coat. Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 10 minutes in a preheated oven at 400 F, until crusts begin to brown. Lower heat to 350 degrees and continue baking until crust is golden all over and juices bubble, about 30 minutes more. Cool completely on a wire rack or serve warm with ice cream.