Saturday, October 09, 2021

Weekend Cooking: The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens


Recently my friend has started a new bookclub. It is something we have tried to do for a while now, but it never worked out, so this time she put a call out on Meet-Up and has bought together a group of people who share a desire to read but are otherwise a group of strangers. Well, other than the two of us who already know each other.



I was really keen to have this be a read-on-a-theme bookclub rather than nominating a specific book to read, although we may also do that on occasion. The theme for this time was Spring and I chose to read The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens because blossoms mean spring right? It was a book that I already had on my ereader as a review copy and it also counts for Weekend Cooking - it's a triple whammy!



The story opens on 7 February 1967, a day known as Black Tuesday in Tasmania. On that day, there were horrific bushfires in and around Hobart and many people were killed, injured or made homeless. 



I count myself very lucky to have never been too close to a bushfire. The closest was a few years ago when there was a grass fire a couple of suburbs away and we were instructed to evacuate. As an Australian, every summer we dread the days when the news headlines start with stories of bushfires raging, of the volunteer fire fighters risking their own lives to try and save the homes and towns of others, of heartbreaking stories of homes lost or even worse, lives. Whilst I haven't personally been affected, I know people who know people who have lost it all. And we have all smelt the smoky air as it drifts across the country, felt the gloom descend and the pride that we feel in those people on the front line who give so much of themselves to help others.



The first few pages of this book were gripping as the author took us into the face of these horrendous fires in Hobart. The fear and the panic, the desperate need to get back to your family, and the heartbreaking moment when you realise that you have lost significant parts of your livelihood or heritage, and, even worse, members of your family. It was so well written, I could feel the tension, fear and the heat.




Our main character is Catherine Turner, a young teacher who grew up on her family's apple orchard in the Huon Valley. As the fires spread Catherine makes is charged with supervising the children who can't get back to their families due to the fires closing in. As soon as she is able, she makes the somewhat reckless, actually make that very reckless, decision to try to get home to her family's orchard. The roads are closed, and she and her friend are told not to proceed, but they do and in doing so they place themselves in the path of danger.



When she does get home, it is to scenes of utter devestation all through the valley. Fire is fickle. It can destroy great swathes of land and yet some structures will remain standing. For the Turners, they pay the ultimate price. Their main house is gone, and their young son/brother is dead. Fortunately a cottage remains for them to live in while they start to rebuild their lives. Catherine's father has always been of the opinion that the land is no place for a girl so the orchard was always going to go to Peter, despite the fact that he wanted to be a vet and Catherine wants to be an orchardist. Catherine's mother has been devestated by the loss of her son and withdraws into herself.




What follows is a history of the apple industry in Tasmania, since that fateful day and some of the key events of the late 1960's through to now through the lens of Catherine and her friends and family's lives.  Tasmania is known as the Apple Isle but the apple industry has been decimated over the last 50 years thanks to the fires, to changes in the export markets and increasing transport costs. These changes resulted in schemes from the government to pay people to rip out their trees, and families moving away to find a new life off the land. On the positive side there are the introduction of more efficient farming techniques and the introduction of organic farming methods.



Catherine's closest friend is Annie who is married to Dave Pearson. On the day of the fire, she is at home with her kids, plus young Charlie who is the son of Dave's friend Mark. Annie has five sons and a much wanted newborn baby girl. Annie grew up in an affluent family in Hobart, but she was disowned when she married Dave. Mark is living on their property with Charlie seeking an escape from his life in Melbourne, although Annie would like him to be gone. 



As Catherine gets to know the shy Charlie, she also begins to get to know Mark, but there are many impediments, not least of all the fact that he is married to the absent Lara. Catherine faces many challenges to keep her family legacy, whilst still having to deal with the ongoing trauma that is the legacy of the fires and her brother's death.



This is the author's debut novel, and it is a strong debut. I enjoyed learning about the history of the apple industry and the lives of characters. Some of storyline was a bit unlikely, but it was definitely readable.



It should come as no surprise that there were lots of mentions of food, most of which were apple recipes. I wanted to make something apple-y, but I wasn't sure what until Mae shared a poem about apple pie a couple of weeks ago. I have also been thinking that I needed to try and make a "proper pie" which sent me off on a search for recipes.  



Mae had mentioned having cheese with her apple pie, which is a new flavour combination to me and, in the end, I took that idea and twisted it a little and made a cheddar cheese flavoured pie crust, filled with apples and topped with a streusel which apparently. Apparently this style of pie (without the cheddar) is called a Dutch Apple Pie. 



I took bits and pieces and inspiration from various recipes and put them all together, but predominantly it was based on this recipe from Olive and Mango. I didn't use the nuts in the streusel because we have a nut allergy in our house (my son is allergic to tree nuts) so I looked around at various other streusel recipes until I decided to use rolled oats in my streusel.




And the verdict? I enjoyed the flavour combination, but it got mixed reviews in my house. Robert said that he would like it to be made again but with just a plain crust and my son wouldn't even try it! So overall, I would use that recipe for the apples again, but it would be a different pastry and an adapted streusel.



I am linking this post up with the Australian Women Writers ChallengeHistorical Fiction Reading Challenge and Foodies Read.




Weekly Meals



Saturday - 
Sunday -  Fancy Dinner
Monday - Pork Chops, mash, mushroom sauce, broccoli
Tuesday - 
Wednesday - Spaghetti Bolognaise
Thursday - Fajitas
Friday - Take away


Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page



17 comments:

  1. Thank you for the review of this very serious but interesting book that sheds light on the catastrophe and traumas the characters experience due to the bushfires and then on the aftermath. Sorry your pie was a semi disappointment-

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    1. It was a good read Judee, and certainly interesting to see the different things which impact an industry.

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  2. Ohhh this sounds like my kind of book. I live in apple-growing country and every year from August to November we always have fresh, local apples in the house.

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    1. I need to find some other apple recipes BFR!

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  3. The book does sound good and the pie looks yummy!

    I used to live at the edge of a forest and they did "controlled" burns every so often. One year the fire got out of control and burned it's way toward our house. The air was so thick with smoke that we could barely see and the smell was so strong. We were evacuated and they finally got the fire put out about 4 acres from our house. It was very scary, and we had only finished building the house about a year before.

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    1. Losing control of a controlled burn has caused a number of big fires here over the years Vicki. So scary!

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  4. How wonderful of you to find my sister’s apple pie so inspiring! Her recipe is a classic, the way our mother made it, and in fact we don’t often eat it with cheese, but the day she visited we decided it would serve as our lunch, thus the cheese.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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  5. I like the idea of a book club where books read are based on a theme. We've actually done that many times over the ten years that our f-t-f book club meets.

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    1. We may choose to occasionally read the same book! We'll see.

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  6. I like the idea of a read-a-theme book club. This book appeals to me and I am hoping to gather enough of the Austrailan books for next years challenge. Hard for me to find here.

    I'm always up for an apple dessert so I'd be willing to try all versions you make! My father used to put a slice of cheddar on our warm apple pie.

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    1. It's strange that there are still so many geo-restrictions when it comes to books.

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  7. thanks for your comment - haven't been cooking much of interest lately.. lost my mojo - will have to see if it comes back. Have put Food on Friday on hiatus although Books You Loved is working well. Good luck

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  8. my friend of many years who has scottish parents always had apple pie with a hunk of cheese. it's just how they did it in the old country:)

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    1. I am sure there are lots of places where they do it Sherry.

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  9. What a fun concept for a bookclub. I like the idea of a theme rather than a specific title.

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