Tuesday 11 December 2018

"I love you, rotten"

There's a group of fruit trees that have a medieval aura to them - medlar, quince, mulberry, cobnut - and smallholders and keen gardeners sometimes like to grow them, if they have not been inherited, because they are unusual or in the name of diversity. A bit like keeping rare breed livestock. 

These fruits are unusual in the sense that you don't often see them for sale, certainly not in a supermarket. And its not always clear what you can do with them. They are forgotten fruits. More recently they do seem to have acquired a degree of metropolitan trendiness, encouraged no doubt by a certain strata of cookery writer. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for growing them if you have the space, including their ornamental value if not for their culinary contribution.

We have a quince, but not a mulberry nor cobnut. We do now have a medlar. We have had a growing familiarity with the medlar and make use of the fruit, so there are reasons for growing it. I generally use medlar jelly in the same way as redcurrant jelly, to flavour and add a little sweetness to meat dishes.

The relative rarity of medlars has not always been the case. Seventeenth century recipe books have instructions about how to use them in among today's more familiar fruits. Shakespeare refers to the medlar in several plays in the knowledge that the audience would be familiar with the fruit and understand his references or puns. In Romeo and Juliette, for example, Murcutio makes the following somewhat salacious comment:- 

    "If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
      Now will he sit under a medlar tree
      And wish his mistress was that kind of fruit
      As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone. - 
      O Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
      An open-arse, thou a pop'rin pear." 

The fully grown fruit is green and hard but not yet ready for consumption. They have to be allowed to begin to go rotten or ferment. Medlars become soft and mushy, and turn brown with wrinkled skin. Frost helps matters along the way. Although this sounds unattractive the 'bletting' process, as it is called, causes the starch in the fruit to turn to sugar. This is when medlars are ready to use. 

The rottenness might be off-putting for some. D.H.Lawrence, in his emotional-laden poem Medlars and Sorb Apples described them as "Wineskins of brown morbidity, Autumnal excrementa", which is not really intended to stimulate the appetite. To put people off further the medlar is known in France as 'dogs arse' and to the observant the semblance is apparent. (The 'open-arse' mentioned by Shakespeare I suspect refers to a  more gender specific term for a part of the anatomy used in Elizabethan England). Anyway, I actually prefer to think of it looking more like a very large rose hip.

Medlars, not quite bletted

Medlar jelly is the usual, although not the only, consumable to produce from the fruits. I've previously bought medlar jelly from farm shops (a bit pricey) and more recently from a smallholder friend (a snip). This year we were gifted a basket worth of medlars from another smallholder which we have turned into jelly. We decided that it was time to grow a medlar of our own.

Today I planted a couple of new apple trees ('Spartan' and 'Gala') and a medlar tree. The variety is Mespilus germanica 'Nottingham' which is commonly available from fruit tree nurseries. We now look forward to continue to be able to enjoy rottenness for many years to come.


  1. I always enjoy the literary connections to your posts Phillip. Rain stopped play here or even gardening.

    1. Thank you Dave. Sunny but cold here today.