Medlars (Mespilus germanica) are an intriguing olde worlde species that have slowly been making a comeback in modern cuisine. Jane Steward of Eastgate Larder in Norfolk, UK, has been doing a tremendous job of ‘Reviving The Medlar’ over the past decade or so, and her knowledge on this fruit is unparalleled. If you decide you’d like to learn more than we discuss here, definitely get in touch with Jane via the website and ask to see the wonderful booklet she created on the history or the medlar.
A relative of roses, apples, pears, quince and hawthorn, medlar trees are typically grafted onto hardy quince rootstock and grow to a whopping 4-6 meters high and just as wide. Their pink and white flowers emerge first in spring, followed by drooping green leaves that provide a shady canopy all summer and then shift through the most stunning array of oranges, yellows and reds during autumn, before falling and leaving behind the round rosehip-like baubles that are medlar fruit.
Favoured throughout history as one of the fruits that would last through cold harsh winters, authors such as Shakespeare, Chaucer and Jane Austen all wrote about them in their works. They have, however, gained themselves a bit of negative press due not only to the fact that they resemble certain parts of a dog’s anatomy (the French name for these fruit is “cul de chien” – we’ll let you look it up!), but also because of the way they need to be prepared.
It’s likely you’ve never seen a medlar, as they’re highly uncommon in greengrocers, and it’s almost certain we’re decades away from seeing one in any kind of supermarket. That’s because you can only eat a medlar once it has ‘bletted’: a process which involves letting the hard, astringent fruit over-ripen to a point just short of rotting. Once it has bletted completely, you only have a day or two to eat it before true decay sets in and it again becomes inedible.
Whilst apples and pears can be eaten raw or cooked, and quince’s flesh – whilst horrible raw – can be transformed into a sweet aromatic delight by cooking, medlars will remain face-implodingly astringent unless they’re allowed to blet. In nature, this happens during winter on the tree: after the leaves have all fallen, frosts set in and begin to break down the cell walls in the fruit which then allows bletting – which is really a slow fermentation process – to kick off. If you’re growing medlars in Europe, this is still a suitable way to handle them, but if you happen to live in Australia where parrots, cockatoos and possums run rife, you’ll find the fruit barely has a chance to ripen (let alone blet) on the tree before the native wildlife gets stuck in. So, you will need to blet your medlars off the tree.
What’s all the fuss?
But before proceeding, you may well be wondering whether it’s actually worth going to all this effort just to eat an ancient fruit that has to almost-rot before consumption. Well, here’s why we think a love affair with medlars is something everyone should entertain at least once in their lives…
Perfectly bletted medlars have a consistency like decadently thick apple sauce, and the flavour is a heady combination of gently stewed pears, apples and dates with added cinnamon, vanilla, honey and a delightful tangy high note of citrus. The soft, gooey flesh is a pale caramel colour, and lasciviously moreish to eat by scooping and sucking it from the delicate paper-thin skin and flat soft seeds.
Thickly spread onto a cracker, it forms the perfect accompaniment to a rich blue cheese or sharp goat’s curd; mixed through apple pieces and topped with cardamom-laced crumble, it adds a rounded depth to autumn desserts.
Add medlars to vodka with spices and a twist of orange zest then allow to steep for 6 months, and you’ll have a complex, rich liqueur unlike anything in commercial existence. Simmer medlars in water and add sugar to the boiling, strained juice and you’ll have the most incredible clear ruby jelly to bejewel the cheese platter of your dreams. Cook down the sieved pulp with sugar or honey, and you’ll have a fruit paste to rival the ubiquitous quince paste to the point where you’ll say “quince who??”.
Convinced yet? Good. Because medlars are a seriously sumptuous fruit once you get to know them. Now read on and learn to turn these rock-hard nuggets into voluptuous parcels of culinary inspiration.
Check for ripeness
Firstly, you need to ensure your medlars are ripe before picking, otherwise no matter of laying around will make them blet. To tell if a medlar is ripe, look for a darker, reddish brown colour (like burnt sienna) around the open end (called the calyx), and check that the stem-end of the fruit has lost any hint of green undertone and is a pale orange-brown in colour (like raw sienna). Also check that the sepals (the flippy leafy bits around the calyx – these were once the green bracts that covered the flower bud before it blossomed) have lost any green and are beginning to brown and dry. A ripe medlar will break off from the stem very easily when you touch it, so to harvest from large trees, a traditional way of collecting the fruit involved gently shaking the branches so all ripe fruit came tumbling to the ground around you. Beware if using this method: a hard medlar to the head at speed can cause a fair bruise!
To freeze or not to freeze
As mentioned above, the natural bletting process of medlars involves being blasted by the first frost of winter as it breaks down the cell walls in the fruit and allows the starches to begin transforming into sugars. Whilst this isn’t absolutely necessary for bletting to occur, you can replicate the natural process by popping ripe medlars in the freezer overnight before laying them out. If you don’t have space in a freezer to do this, don’t fret: simply lay them out and be prepared to wait a little longer.
To seal, and protect
Before laying out medlars for bletting, check them over to ensure there’s no damage to the skin, as this can lead to bacterial contamination, mould and rot. It’s advisable to give them a gentle wash in a saline solution, as this kills off unwanted bacteria on the skin. Throughout history, people have also dipped the stem in wax to seal off the broken skin where bacteria could enter and cause the fruit to rot rather than blet. Once prepared thus, simply lay medlars calyx-side down in a single layer on a soft surface. In the past, this was often in straw-lined bays in a cool loft, but those are in short supply these days, so using trays, baskets and racks are a good alternative. Flat woven baskets are ideal, as they’re a bit soft and springy. If using wooden or metal trays, or cooling racks, simply lay a teatowel or two down first to provide a soft bed for the medlars.
Patience is a virtue
Once laid out (they can be closely grouped in their single layer), leave your medlars in a temperate spot (indoors, but not near heaters or sunny windows etc). Keep an eye on them over the next few weeks, and watch for a darkening of the skin on the fruits. Like pears, medlars ripen from the inside-out, so once you see a dark, soft patch on one area of a medlar, it won’t be long before the whole fruit is fully bletted. A properly bletted medlar will be squishy all over with no dark, hard patches; a darker brown colour (like raw umber); have fragile papery thin skin; and smell a bit like cooked apples. You should be able to give it a good squeeze and the pulp will break free from the skin and you can get stuck in.
Cool your jets
As medlars blet at different rates from each other (depending where they were on the tree, they will have ripened at different times), it’s a good idea to freeze them whole as they are ‘ready’. This way you can gather a whole lot of them for use in making preserves like the medlar jelly (which you can make using the recipe here). If you wanted to collect just a few to make a crumble, or cake, or infused spirits, they will keep for a week or so in the fridge when fully bletted.
So. For all the lead up and information to start with, treating and using medlars is remarkably easy: leave it on the tree til it falls off easily, clean it, then leave it alone until it’s ready to eat. Simple, and wonderfully lo-tech.
If you have a chance to try one of these unique fruits, it’s definitely worth it! There are several old trees in historic homesteads and public gardens around Victoria, and if you want to get started growing your own, you can purchase a young tree from the excellent Aussie supplier Daleys Fruit Tree Nursery. And if you do ever get a chance to blet a kilo or more of them, you can tweak our Quince Jelly recipe to make a beautiful preserve – you won’t be disappointed.