Bartenders' guide to foraging: Crab apples

Words by forager, Sarah Watson

Photography by Sarah Watson

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Ever tasted a crab apple? These miniature apples may be sour and dry-tasting when raw, but their complex flavour makes them a superb drinks ingredient.

Common name: Crab apple
Latin name: Malus species
Plant family: Rose (Rosaceae)
Edible part: Fruit

Crab apples tend to be very sour due to their malic and citric acid content, and some are also woody-tasting or tannic, so they are rarely eaten raw. Different trees have distinct flavours, and some varieties are sweeter than others.

The native European wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris), now quite rare in the wild, is one of the ancestors of the cultivated apple. It's a smallish, thorny tree of woodland edges and hedgerows, with a habit of becoming 'crabbily' gnarled and twisted, and bearing green-yellow fruit around 2cm in diameter. Stone Age people would have eaten them before the introduction of other apple species, and the development of larger, sweeter cultivated varieties.

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There are now hundreds of cultivated, ornamental varieties and species of crab apple, grown particularly in Europe, Asia and North America. Apple trees from discarded pips also tend to produce small 'wildling' apples (pictured above). Whether cultivated, feral, hybrid or truly wild, crab apples always seem to have a more intense flavour than their larger cousins.

Crab apples were traditionally roasted and added to ceremonial drink 'wassail' consisting of spiced, sweetened cider or ale, or mead. Wassailing is a medieval English wintertime drinking ritual for encouraging a good apple harvest.

Nowadays, crab apples are used to make cider and home-made country wine, as well as being used to flavour ales and mead. The flavour of crab apples goes well with blackberry, quince, rosehip, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, clove, thyme, rosemary, brown sugar, honey and sherry.

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Crab apples are small to medium trees with scaly, greyish bark, often covered in lichen. The dark, green deciduous leaves are arranged alternately on the twigs and may be downy. They can vary in shape, but are 3 to 10cm long, and roughly oval or round, with a pointed end and finely serrated edges.

The five-petalled flowers (pictured above) are white, pink or red with many stamens, and appear in abundance in April and May. The fruit ripens around September, its fibrous stalk is long in relation to the size of the fruit when compared to a standard apple.

Crab apple fruits can vary greatly, ranging in diameter from under a centimetre to five centimetres, they can be spherical or more oval and elongated. The little apples can be green, yellow or red, and may be prettily flushed with pink or red.

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Some of the smaller crab apples could be confused with cherries, rosehips or even hawthorn fruit. However, cutting any apple in half at right-angles to the stalk will reveal a distinctive five-pointed star-shaped core, where some five to ten small seeds (pips) develop.

Find feral crab apple trees tucked into hedgerows and woods, scrubland and on roadsides, whilst ornamental trees are planted in parks, gardens and streets. Always leave some fallen apples for wildlife as butterflies, mammals and birds eat them. The spring blossoms also attract bees, and the leaves are a food plant for many moths.

Crab apple is a foraged botanical used in various 'wild gins' including Hillside Gin from Shropshire, Hibernation Gin from the Dyfi Distillery in Wales, and Sloemotion's Hedgerow Gin and Hedgerow Botanical Vodka.

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Try infusing crab apples in Scotch (pictured below) or bourbon, brandy, vodka or gin: Use enough crab apples to about half-fill a preserving jar. Wash, remove the stalks, and halve or chop your apples, depending on size. Top up with spirit as you add them to the jar, making sure they're covered. Spices are an optional addition, then seal and leave to infuse for three months. Strain and bottle, adding sugar, simple syrup or honey to taste. Leave to mature for a few more months, or mellow for several years.

Try crab apple brandy instead of Calvados in an Apple Brandy Sour, or mix crab apple bourbon or vodka with vermouth in a Crab Apple Manhattan cocktail.

See below for how to make crab apple syrup. Forager Mark Williams suggests juicing raw, sour crab apples as a verjuice to replace citrus in cocktails. It's worth catching them before they fully ripen to try this.

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Foraging crab apples:

• The fruit ripens from around late August to October. Because crab apples are relatively dry they tend not to rot quickly and fallen crabs can be found throughout winter.
• Crab apples are ripe when they begin to fall from the tree and the seeds turn brown. You should be able to pick them easily from the branch. Pick the brightest and ripest first, the rest may need time to ripen.
• Avoid picking in areas that may have been sprayed with chemicals e.g. pesticides or weedkillers.
• To store apples for a few weeks, keep them in a cool place in a single layer.
• Crab apples can be frozen whole or chopped.
• There's no need to peel crab apples before infusing or cooking them. Wash and dry them, remove any stems and leaves and cut out any bad or wormy parts.

To make crab apple syrup:
1. Half or roughly chop your crab apples and add enough water to cover them. Use cooking apples if you can't get crab apples.
2. Bring to the boil and simmer until the fruit is very soft, squashing it with a potato masher.
3. Strain through muslin and leave to drip for several hours.
4. Measure the liquid into a clean pan with the strained juice of a lemon. For every 500ml of liquid add 400g of white sugar.
5. Bring gently to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil for a minute, skimming off any scum.
6. Funnel hot syrup into sterilised glass bottles and seal.
7. Once opened, keep refrigerated.

When foraging, always use good field guides to identify your finds to 100% certainty before eating them - if in doubt, leave it out. Be aware that foraging may not be permitted in some protected areas or parks.

For more information on foraging see Sarah's website:

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