It’s the season for apples, and I’m having quite a surfeit – a 2.5-kilo bag of Topaz and the same of Cox Orange. Topaz, a discovery from a farmers’ market in Bavaria years back, is just the way I like my apples to be — tart-sweet and crisp with a lovely perfume. It also has a gorgeous, gleaming crimson coat. We’d gone through half the bag, and then I wanted to try what a friend regarded as a native German apple – Cox Orange. The bag was actually labeled so – a typical apple of the Rhineland. I’d made it a rule to refrain from buying any non-local varieties of apple. Well… English farmers are likely to be more than a little amused to have this typical English apple so suborned. Since coming to live in Bonn six years ago, I’d been partial to Elstar, an apple not then available in England. I used to buy it from Schneiders, an organic farm shop near the house, rather unusual in that it is open on Sundays. Thanks to Schneiders, I’ve been rescued more than once from not having fresh fruits and vegs when I’d forgotten about some Saint’s Day. Bonn celebrates more holidays than other German, Protestant cities, because the state of North Rhine Westphalia is staunchly Catholic.
Unlike the US or the UK, Sundays (as are Saints’ Days) are truly days of rest here, and except for bakeries, shops that sell food are all closed. Restaurants and cafes do open, of course. Schneiders closes down on Sundays in autumn and winter however. For the past few years, I’ve noted that the quality of Elstar, not to mention other fruits, at Schneiders has deteriorated. Despite being seemingly hard and crisp, apples – whether Elstar or Rubinette or in my desperation, an all-time favourite in the UK that I have usually avoided buying here in Bonn, Braeburn — all turned out to be mealy inside, a fatal flaw for an apple meant to be eaten out of hand. For me, at any rate. I might possibly change my taste and my mind, say, in twenty years or so. I have since become disenchanted with Schneiders and no longer buy from them. They are no better and in my experience rather worse than regular supermarkets. Pity.
This batch of Topaz from Rewe on Weberstrasse turned out to be rather too intensely tart and sweet. I figured they would make a lovely apple cake, and I chose a recipe I’d not tried before – a Swabian one. This turned out to be one of the most complex cake recipes I’d ever turned my hand to, and next time, I’ll probably do a bit of modification on the sequence of steps. Still, it has turned out to be a superb cake. There is a natural affinity of apples with butter and cream, as well as marzipan and almond flakes and vanilla custard pudding. And this rich concoction has all of the above, in generous proportions!
I don’t often make such rich sweets, nor try my hand at overly ambitious recipes. However, this is a special occasion — an occasion for comforting and being comforted. Today is my mother Angela’s birthday. She would’ve been 103 today had she not passed on at age 99, or possibly 100, in 2011. One of her sisters, the youngest one, my Aunt Anita, confided to one of my nieces that Angela was actually born a year earlier than she had claimed. And since the town records in Santiago, Ilocos Sur all disappeared in smoke when the entire town was razed during the Japanese army’s retreat at the end of World War II, there is no one to gainsay the matter.
Angela, or Mamang, as I called her in Ilocano, may have well gone on living till today had she not fallen and broken her right hip. On this day most especially, I remember my mother and thank her for the poems and stories that she told me at bedtime. I learned the Lord’s Prayer by heart very early on, and ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ — the Psalm of David, the 23rd Psalm. Another one that was our favourite was one of Longfellow’s poems, the one that begins ‘I shot an arrow into the air.’ There was a saying she often quoted: “If to do were as easy as to know, what were good to do? Chapels would have been churches, and poor men’s cottages, princes’ palaces.”
Even towards the last years of her life, her memory rarely failed, in particular when it came to the lyrics of songs. One Christmas, her last one as it would turn out, she sang non-stop for hours from her vast repertoire of Ilocano folk songs, and enjoyed the limelight so much, she was a bit put out when well-meaning family members wished her to have a little rest and hand over the microphone. Whenever there was company, she loved to regale everyone with her great fund of stories. I wish now I had written those down, as my own memory just a month away from my 63rd birthday is quite hazy about certain details.
One story she told often was about her first love. She had gone to a Protestant boarding school in the capital, Vigan, for high school. Apparently she had excelled, and was often chosen to lead the girls’ team in debating and other church-related activities. On the boys’ team, there was one called Peregrino who also was frequently chosen to be leader. I gathered there was a bit of friendly rivalry that had gone on between Mamang as a teenager and this Pereg. After graduation, Pereg wrote her a love letter, but Mamang, naïve and innocent, didn’t know what to make of it and delayed her reply. When she eventually did, she didn’t disclose her own feelings, and that was the end of any more correspondence from Pereg. Mamang learned (and so did I) from this about the value of being honest and forthright about feelings.
Fresh from high school, she was sent to teach at a school in Bukidnon. I can imagine what a marvelous adventure it must have been – taking the boat to Mindanao, far from any region she had ever known. Even today traveling inter-island by boat in the Philippines is not without its perils with frequent reports of overloaded boats capsizing and unprepared with life vests. There was an American soldier who took a fancy to her during this long trip, named Oliver Reece. He had bought a garland of flowers at one of the many island stops. As he put the garland over her head, he gave her a kiss. It was her first kiss ever. It had been aimed at her lips, but she, unable to avoid it and not wishing to offend, had the presence of mind to stoop and the kiss landed on her forehead instead.
The best time I spent with Mamang were three months in 2008 when we sang so much every day that I call it our Summer of Song. Mamang loved to sing, and the songs that she loved were old folk songs that poked fun at people’s foibles, in particular old men who fancy young ladies. Today, it is fitting that I have made a celebratory cake with apples. As King Solomon had written in the Song of Songs 2:5: “Comfort me with apples.”
Today, I am grateful that Mamang nurtured in me a love for the beauty of language – in classical Ilocano and in English – as crafted into poetry and songs. I am thankful that she loved to sing and taught me many old droll songs in Ilocano, songs that are rarely sung these days, even by those of my generation. Most of all, I give thanks and grateful praise that my mother Angela – Mamang — gave me the ultimate gift — life.
I offer this apple cake to my siblings and the rest of my family and to my friends far away for comfort on this special day.
Whatever it is that you may need comforting from, I comfort you with apples.