The medlar, ripe this month, is an old-fashioned fruit that's making a comeback via farmers' marketsFeatured November 09 Words by Alex Mitchell
The medlar, ripe this month, is an old-fashioned fruit that's making a comeback via farmers' markets
D H Lawrence called them: "Wineskins of brown morbidity/ Autumnal excrementa." Medieval French peasants preferred the more prosaic "cul de chien" or "dog's arse". It must be said that the medlar fruit is unlikely to win awards for beauty. But it's what you have to do before eating it that really makes it unusual.
Picked in November, long after the harvest of other fruits, medlars are traditionally packed into boxes between layers of damp straw for several weeks for "bletting", until they turn to a slushy brown mush with a fermenting winey odour. Put another way, you can only eat them when they're rotten. Try dealing with that in your weekly organic veg box.
These days, tracking down medlars, or the jam and jelly made from them, takes a little work. And yet, medlars were once so prized throughout Europe, they were served on platters at medieval banquets, completed every English Victorian Christmas lunch and had a whole festival dedicated to their squashy charms in Umbria, Italy at the feast of Saint Martin. Most English Victorian gardens contained a medlar tree and the fruits were eaten as sweetmeats after meals, much valued as a source of vitamin C during the winter months.
But it wasn't just fighting off scurvy that made them so popular. From Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, English literature has made the most of the medlar's nickname of "open arse". In France, too, it inspired lovers of smut, regularly tempting Charles X to Les Halles in Paris just to hear the crude banter of the medlar sellers. The French food writer Marthe Daudet, who wrote under the pseudonym Pampille in the early 20th century, got completely carried away by medlars' charms. The preserve, she said: ". resembles a jam of dead leaves, and evokes the loneliness of shepherds. The best way to savour it is to feel a little sad and eat it near a fire with a teaspoon."
More conveniently, you may prefer to open a jar and spread a little on toast. The squishy brown pulp may look unappetising, but when it's turned into jelly it's a sweet, smoky delicacy of the clearest amber, with a mellow taste a bit like apple spiced with cinnamon. It's great with venison, lamb and pheasant, adds a mellow sweetness to sauces and is the business on muffins. Medlar chutney, jam and even cheese (a fruit curd) are eulogised by chefs such as Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall. Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree, the jam maker to the Queen of England, has an orchard of medlar trees on its farm in Essex and makes medlar jelly each year. It's so popular it sometimes sells out within weeks of hitting the shelves. Wilkin & Sons isn't the only one trying to keep the profile of this unusual fruit alive. In the village of Casola Valsenio, near Bologna in Italy, an annual autumn Forgotten Fruits festival features tables laden with the brown squidgy things. In England, specialist fruit suppliers such as Chegworth Valley also stock medlars in season. And the good news: these days you don't have to layer them in damp sawdust until they turn to brown mush. Either leave them on the tree for a couple of frosts to start the bletting process or buy them hard and put them in the fruit bowl for a couple of weeks, then feel free to eat them how you like, (feeling sad by the fire with a teaspoon is optional).
The Girl's Guide to Growing Your Own - How to Grow Fruit and Vegetables Without Getting Your Hands Too Dirty by Alex Mitchell (£12.99/€14.25), published by New Holland Publishers
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Medlars originate in Asia Minor and in Iran, where they are called azgil, and were spread throughout Europe by the Romans.
WHERE TO BUY
Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree www.tiptree.com
MEDLAR JAM (CONFITURE DES NEFLES)
Find the specialist orchard's stalls at these farmers markets in London: Borough, Notting Hill, Pimlico, Hackney, Marylebone, Clapham, Islington and Blackheath. Or see the website for local deliveries. www.chegworthvalley.com
Casola Valsenio Forgotten Fruits Festival
Medlars sell alongside jujubes, sorb apples and other fruits from yesteryear in the cobbled streets of this medieval village in Ravenna (near Venice), Italy. www.comune.casolavalsenio.ra.it