Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Strange Fruit

I have stumbled across a crop of medlars.

I say 'stumbled' like it was part of some grand adventure. Really, the tree is just at the entrance of my sheep paddock, in the garden of a currently empty cottage on the estate. The medlar fruits are odd-looking but in an ornamental way. They are the colour of pears, the shape of an apple, but with a small star-shaped bottom end.

The tree is heaving with fruit. There could be two reasons for this: 1) no one else has found it yet or 2) everyone else knows it's there but have already tried medlar and have no desire to repeat the experience. Medlar recipes commonly appear in Victorian cookbooks - which is usually a warning sign - but not so in modern cookbooks. I fear the medlar might be an historical food which, once people were no longer forced to preserve and eat it, was allowed to disappear from the culinary landscape.

Many large estate gardens still have a medlar or a quince tree hiding in the ranks of their apple orchard, but it's more for tradition's sake than anything else. As head gardener, I offered quinces, medlars, and mulberries to the kitchen but was met with a "Good god, I'd cook and serve the floormats first!" look by most of the chefs.

But, I made mulberry jelly and that was pretty tasty, so I have faith that something can be done with a small harvest of medlars. I'm no chef, but when in doubt I have two tricks up my sleeve:
1) Partner it with apples and make a chutney or jam. Apple & medlar jelly. That sounds respectable.
2) Turn it into a liquer. Vodka and sugar could make grass clippings into something I'd drink.

I'm at a disadvantage because I don't know what medlars taste like. Are they pear-like? Sweet? Dry? Do they give off the faint aroma of wet socks? Until I've tried them once, I can't concoct recipes enhanced with spices or other ingredients to bring out the medlar's full potential (however limited).

The one thing I do know about medlars is they need to be bletted. Bletting is the action of frost on fruit, causing the water to expand in the cells and break down the flesh. The fruit is bletted when it's brown and soft. Even after last night's frost the medlars are still yellow and hard. I might have to wait until November and a good run of frosty nights before I harvest the little darlings. Maybe that's why the tree is still covered in fruit. Maybe everyone else is waiting until the medlars are bletted to claim the coveted prize.

I did collect a small harvest of calendula flowers and autumn rasperries from the abandoned garden, rather than see them go to waste -

While I cut the flowers, the lambs engaged in their own harvest the other side of the fence -

All four are doing well. They're hanging around together in a little wooly gang, leaping about and returning to their respective mothers only when their bellies are empty. I know how they feel.


Megan said...

Oh, lucky! I've always wanted to try a medlar, but I don't think they were popular for long enough to make it to Australia... :(

In that the bletted fruit looks a bit like apple sauce, but with the colour of brown sugar, I'd probably be tempted to bake it into a cake. Or make a slice, using a shortbread/biscuit base, then a layer of medlar pulp (like you might do with jam) and then a streusel or crumble over the top.

I also like the idea of grass-flavoured vodka... ;)

Terry Scoville said...

Simply fascinating, I have never heard of such a fruit. I love your descriptions, "wet socks" and "good god". Glad you snapped up the last few rasberries, they look wonderful.

Maria said...

Unsolicited recipe ahead! I don't know about medlars, but I made quince cheese (not actually cheese) the other day. The Spanish call it 'membrillo' and eat it on bread. It follows the same idea as jam (fruit + sugar, cook), but doesn't set like jam does.
My aunt taught me how - first cut fruit in half, and boil for half an hour. *then* peel and core, and put fruit pulp through blender (*much* easier to peel after boiling, rather than before, as fruit tends to be rock hard). Most recipes call for 50/50 fruit and sugar, but I went for more like 500gr fruit, 400gr sugar. Heat up, stirring, until it starts to bubble, then a couple mins more, until it thickens. Pour into containers. Keeps refrigerated forever (months). Spread on bread or toast. Tasty! Do not be discouraged by unappetising brown colour.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I had no idea there even was such a thing as a medlar, let alone what it tastes like. They sure look nice, but so do acorns.

I have bubonic lamb envy. I'd have SO many more readers if I had something half as cute as that.

Paula said...

The last picture is really sweet.

On the subject of medlars: I recognized them in your picture immediately, but only from reading about them, and now for the life of me, I can't remember in which of my books it was. I understand that they have to be nearly rotten to be edible, and that they taste like a slightly spicy applesauce.

Which suggests Medlar Butter, to me. I'll sign up for a jar right here, because I've been intrigued by them for awhile. I'm just too chicken to plant one. Hey- maybe Medlar Butter would be good with a roast chicken!

Thanks for the lesson on bletting. It does good things to ripe grapes, too, but you have to harvest and crush them while they're frozen...

Joel said...

Didn't Homer Simpson invent a mixed drink like that when he visited Alec Baldwin? I guess he didn't include the sugar, and it was wheatgrass rather than turf grass...still, I think it would be OK.

Cynthia said...

Here's an interesting post that suggests picking them unripe & bletting them in straw:

Hazel said...

I really like medlars, but I know I am in a minority! DS does too, but DH, DD1 and DD2 weren't impressed...
I get mine from two friends. One can't bear them, so I had some of her's and the other has a large tree and there's only so much medlar jelly you can eat.
I made a Medlar jam/jelly type thing (doesn't always set, so call it Medlar Honey!) and medlar tart. There are several recipes for that on line, both modern (with measurements) or medieval ('take ye thy rotten medlars and add as much hony as thou canst spare' get the idea!)
Medlar liqueur is meant to be good, but I didn't try that.

I'd say spicy applesauce is a good description for their taste.
BTW, did you know what their common name is? (And the French name; they do tend to be fairly direct about their plant names - Dandelion/Pissenlit for example) Look again at the puckered end of the fruit and think of a dog's any other Anglo Saxon variations you care to think of!

Jennifer Montero said...

Megan - The alcohol recipe came from an Aussie website - bless you! That cake idea sounds promising too.

Tery - I hope the wet socks comparison IS only a joke...

Maria - No, I'm definitely soliciting recipes at all times. I had heard of membrillo but didn;t know it was from medlars, so thank you for putting the two fragments of info together for me. I will try the recipe.

Tamar - The cuteness factor is definitely a negative when it comes to the 'putting it in the freezer' part. Give me an ugly turkey instead!

Paula - I will happily send you a jar of medlar butter, if it looks like it will survive a journey through the post.

Joel - I bow to your pop culture knowledge! If it's good enough for a Baldwin (and not even one of the lesser Baldwins...) than it's good enough for us.

Cynthia - Thank you so much for that reference. I can fast forward the bletting process with that tip.

Hazel - You comment gives me hope. Spicy applesauce sounds worth a try, especially if the main ingredient is free. I guess if there is problems with it setting than it's a low pectin fruit? I had noticed it's..ahem..physical attributes but I thought it was just me being childish! Good to know I'm not alone there.

Maria said...

No no no!!! Membrillo is made with quinces, not medlars! Please don't try it with medlars, who knows what it would taste like... :o) I was just going off-topic slightly as you mentioned quince in your post as well. Sorry for the confusion.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Wait on them medlars until after a few frosts. You will thank me later.

The suggestion on medlar butter is a good one, but if you have ever worked with American persimmons, diospyros virginia, you can interchange medlars with them. Puddings, breads, mushy things and the like.