Meddling with Medlars

The following post was written by Woodlore Aspirant Instructor Sarah Day:

Fruit from the medlar tree (Mespilus germanica)

Fruit from the medlar tree (Mespilus germanica)

This year has been a good one for many fruits (and fungi) – bumper crops of blackberries, apples and wild plums have been gathered in profusion by all who keep a keen eye on the hedgerows. I have recently tried parasol mushrooms (pictured below). Again, it seems to have been a bumper year for these, and I’ve cooked them up with wild sweet chestnuts and rice. Rice cooked with a little prepared acorn meal is another wild food recipe I can heartily recommend.

But this year has brought me a new opportunity: the opportunity to try possibly one of the un-loveliest fruits found growing wild in the UK – the humble medlar (pictured above). The fruit of the medlar tree (Mespilus germanica) is a peculiar thing, looking something like a huge brown ‘rosa rugosa’ rosehip, or a very deformed and rotten apple. They bear the distinction of being one of few fruits that must be bletted, i.e. hit by a frost so that they are really on their way to being rotten before they can be counted as ‘ripe’ (or stored for long enough so that bletting takes place naturally). Shakespeare and various other writers clearly didn’t think much of them, the ‘rotten before they’re ripe’ quality put in an appearance in several plays as a metaphor for moral rottenness.

However, despite their unappetizing appearance, I’ve always wanted to try them. The entrance to one of our course sites is marked by a small medlar tree, but since the fruit is only ready around mid-November, I’ve never tried them as the UK courses are usually finished by then. They can be eaten raw once bletted, traditionally eaten with sugar and cream. The flesh tastes a bit like cooking apple crossed with hawthorn – pulpy and sweet. It can also be made into jelly or medlar ‘cheese’, which is a confection of medlar pulp, butter, sugar and egg white (like lemon curd). I have opted for the jelly option, pushing pulped fruit through a sieve to remove the large seeds and simmering it down with plenty of sugar. It’s tasty stuff, though moderately time consuming, and it may take some time to chisel it off the bottom of my preserving pan!

Parasol mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera)

Parasol mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera)

It is a fruit rarely eaten here now, perhaps because of its appearance, perhaps because it is time consuming to prepare. But either way, it makes me wonder about our ancestors, trying odd, unappealing foods out of curiosity or desperation, and making truly repulsive items into tasty foods often by convoluted processes. Nowadays we stick to the obvious things, the ones which are easily and obviously edible, but perhaps we’re missing out on some culinary treasures as a result…

– Sarah Day

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