Drinker’s Guide to Crab Apples


In Northern climes, we have become addicted to the citrus fruits of warmer places and this is most obvious in the drinks industry.

There is nothing wrong with citrus fruits – they are wonderful – but there are many acidic alternatives readily available to the imaginative drinks enthusiast that have comparable flavours and none of the air miles. Citrus addiction is so ingrained in our drinks culture that a transition to more interesting, sustainable acidifiers is going to require some retuning of palates. But kicking away the crutch of citrus and exploring crab apples, japanese knotweed, sea buckthorn, rhubarb, sorrel and other temperate sour ingredients will open up new avenues of creativity and ultimately improve your drinks.

Crab apples are high in mallic acid which can be cheek-puckeringly sour – its the same acidity as is used as a coating on many fizzy jelly sweets. The term “crab apple” is used to refer to any small, sour, pippy apple – and this can encompass a broad range of varieties. True crab apple (malus sylvestris) is not uncommon, but most you come across are likely to be hybrids and genetic variants of the original, with a distinct flavour profile of their own.

This opens up great opportunities for gastro-botanists: by getting intimate with the crab apple trees in your area, you can pick the right apple for the right job. You can also give them your own names… For example I know a gnarly old heavy-cropping tree that produces relatively large, always heavily scabbed apples with a ferocious acidity. I call him Auld Mallic and he makes great fruit leathers and verjus.

Don't be put off by imperfections - they still taste great!

I’ve christened her Rosy Pucker and she lights up a sloe gin cocktail or fruit jelly.

A few hundred metres away grows another crab apple tree producing smaller, pretty, pinkish-red fruits with less acidity and more flavour. I’ve christened her Rosy Pucker and she lights up a sloe gin cocktail or fruit jelly.

Season: Flowers May – June, Fruits August – November.
Fallen crab apples keep well on the ground and can often be harvested in good numbers throughout the winter

Identification: Small tree or shrub with twisted, occasionally thorny branches, oval/pointed tooth-edged leaves, and clusters of white/pink flowers. Apples 2-4cm diameter, yellow-green, often flushed red. Parks, gardens and urban settings, ornamental varieties are quite common. These tend to bear smaller, more brightly coloured fruit in hues of orange, pink, red and green.Don’t be put off by blemishes – every good crab apple has at least one!

Edible Parts: Flowers, buds, fruits

Distribution: Common throughout Europe and N America

Habitat: Well established woods and hedgerows

Drinks Uses: A great fruity acidifier (mallic acid). Juiced to make verjus. Mixed with juiced sorrel, crab apple verjus makes a temperate lime juice substitute. Use anywhere that calls for acidity/sourness

Tasting Notes: Strongly acidic, apply. Acidity levels, flavour and colour can vary from tree to tree. Get to know your local crab apple trees.

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