Simon Thibault is a Halifax-based full-time food writer and radio producer who is also a programmer for the Devour Food and Film Festival in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Simon’s cookbook, Pantry and Palate, explores his Acadian roots by scouring old family recipes, ladies’ auxiliary cookbooks, and folk wisdom for 50 of the best-loved recipes of Acadians past and present. Here is the story behind his mother Jeanne’s classic apple pie recipe.
JEANNE’S APPLE PIE SERVES 6–8
“I don’t make it as much as I used to,” my mother admits. She says she worries about the cholesterol in the lard, but my father will occasionally mention in his casual manner, “It’s been a while since we had an apple pie.” And soon enough, one will be made.
My mother uses Macintosh, Gravenstein, or Paula Red for her pies. About mid-fall she likes to use a blend of apples, which gives the pie more variety and substance.
Apple pie is all about two things: the type of apples and the seasonings. The two should play well together and not overpower one another. It’s a harmony, not a solo. The type of apple you use can give you varying textures and flavours that can change depending on when the apple is harvested and how long it has been in cold storage.
I’m incredibly lucky to have grown up with an orchard in my backyard. My father started his orchard in the early ’80s as something to look forward to in retirement. I know not everyone had apples in their backyard, but if you were to look back at the turn of the twentieth century, many Acadian households did.
Families had particular old varieties that they preferred, with names like Ben Davis, Snow, or Cox Orange Pippin. There is an old variety (which is said to have been preserved by the Acadians) that is known as Belliveau. The history of the Belliveau has gone slightly hazy over the generations. As discussed on page 185, folklorist Félix Thibodeau wrote about them in a story titled “Les Poummes” (The Apples). In it, two characters, Marc and Phillipe, start reminiscing about the apple and how it was getting harder and harder to find. “In our day, there would be one or two trees in each orchard,” remembers Marc. “We couldn’t have lived without an orchard, it was a precious heritage,” says Phillipe. “You know that it was old Bear Belliveau who had the first Belliveau in the world.”
In fact, the Belliveau is a transplant from Port Royal, the first major French settlement in North America. In her book Valley Gold, author Anne Hutten explains that “[t]he Belliveau was brought from Port Royal to St. Mary’s Bay, Digby County, in 1769 or ’70 by Mrs. Frederic Belliveau from her father’s orchard. Its origin before that time is uncertain.” A little bit of Acadian history, still living amongst us in an apple tree.
However, the only customers my father has for Belliveaus are over the age of 80, and this is the same for those who come looking for Ben Davis and other older varieties. “There’s no money in those older varieties,” explains my father. One of the handful of customers who ask for it, is actually Félix Thibodeau’s 102-year-old sister, Edith.
But that lack of sales and interest in older varieties is a sentiment I’ve heard from most apple growers. It’s easier for apple growers to just cut down those trees and graft on newer varieties, like Honeycrisp. Every year someone asks my father for a variety that he no longer grows, as the market wasn’t big enough. It’s unfortunate and sad to watch an expression of culinary and agricultural heritage disappear with those who once loved it.
The view of heritage apples is changing slowly but surely. There is a great book by journalist and Vermont-based James Beard Award–winning author Rowan Jacobsen called Apples of Uncommon Character. It lists 123 different varieties of apples that he finds noteworthy, giving indications on what, how, and where to find them as well as a little history on each apple variety. You’d be surprised how many of these apples are available in Atlantic Canada, and a little saddened by how many of them aren’t grown here any longer.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to a farmers’ market or an apple orchard, do yourself a big favour and buy your apples there. Ask the person behind the counter—or the farmer themselves as they roam around the orchard during a U-pick—what kind of apple you should get. Just tell them what you want to make, and they’ll point you in the right direction. Trust them, they know what is good, what is out there.
Pie making doesn’t have to be intimidating, but it should be repeated. Try and try again. Besides, you can always eat the mistakes.
This recipe will yield two portions of pie crust—a top and a bottom. It also freezes very well, so feel free to roll it out, place it in a pan, put it in the freezer, and take it out when you need it.
A tip: This pastry works best if you cook it at a higher temperature first (425˚F for the first 15 minutes) and then turn it down to 350˚F, for approximately 30–40 minutes, until golden brown.
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, with more for rolling out the pastry
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup lard or vegetable shortening
2 tablespoons cold water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
• Sift together the flour and salt in a large bowl.
• Using a pastry cutter (or two butter knives), cut the lard into the flour, until the fat is about the size of peas.
• In another bowl, combine the egg, water, and vinegar. Add to the flour and mix with hands until the dough just about comes together when pressed.
• Flour your countertop with a couple tablespoons of flour. Divide the dough in half.
• Using a rolling pin, roll out the pastry to about 1/4-inch thickness and large enough to fill a 9-inch pie plate.
• Fold the pastry gently in half over the rolling pin, and place in pie plate.
• At this point you can either roll out your remaining pastry to top your pie, or roll it out and place in another pie pan, and freeze.
The recipe for this pie is pretty straightforward and can be made with whatever apples appeal to you. Instead of sweetening the filling with sugar, in our household we tend to use honey. I stick to classics for seasonings: cinnamon and nutmeg. The nutmeg reminds my mother of her own grandmother, who used it in her pies. She still has the old rasp that her own grandmother used when she made this same recipe. Cinnamon was her mother’s spice of choice, and so my mother uses both in hers to remind her of the women who cooked before her.
2 pie crusts, rolled out and ready to go (see recipe on page 215)
4–5 medium apples such as Gravenstein, Cortland, Paula Red, Northern Spy, or a mixture
3 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
• Peel, core, and cut the apples into pieces, to whatever size you prefer. Place them in a bowl, dust with the cinnamon and nutmeg, and drizzle with honey. Allow to macerate for 30 minutes.
• Preheat the oven to 425˚F.
• Place 1 pie crust into pie pan, leaving a bit of the dough to hang over the side.
• Pour the apples—and any leftover juices—into the pie plate.
• With a pastry brush, wet the edges of the pie dough in the pan. Place the other pie crust over the apples. Trim the edges of the crust, and seal them by either fluting them by hand or pressing them together with the tines of a fork.
• Place the pie into the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350˚F and continue to bake for another 30–40 minutes, until the top is golden brown.
• Allow to cool at least for 30 minutes, or until room temperature.