The misshapen medlar, mespilus germanica, has a little of the dog’s bottom about it: a puckered and cheeked squashed apple with an air of authority that comes from heritage. I love these primeval bulbous fruits – the medlar, the bulging fragrant quince, the tiny crab apple as small as a gem. Gnarled and eccentric, they don’t yield easily to the uninitiated and complex flavours must be coaxed out through jellies, roasting and jamming.
Uniquely, a medlar has to be half-rotten or ‘bletted’ before consumption. This occurs on the tree after the November frosts or in the case of mild weather, the immature medlars need to be picked and stored for 2-3 weeks to blet. The pulp becomes brown and custardy with flavours emerging like the finest vintage wine; expect notes of apple, cinnamon, butter.
I was lucky enough to source some medlars from the organic moongarden at Tresillian House, Newquay, where highly-respected head gardener, John Harris, uses the cycle of the moon to dictate optimum planting times.
Bake them whole in the oven, scoop the flesh out and eat with cheese, make medlar wine, ‘curd’ or transform the pungent flesh into a once common Victorian table accessory that is a rarity today: medlar jelly – a wobbling bronze-coloured accompaniment to game, gravies, sauces or just toast and butter. Apparently just the thing for stomach upsets.
The literary assocations with the fruit however, are far from the era of tightly-corsetted Victorians who hid the shameful curves of sexy furniture. As a fruit that ‘rots’ before being ripe, it has been used as an analogy for prostitutes and premature ageing and the historical nickname ‘open-arse’ leaves the door wide open for lewd jokes. This extract from Aickman’s The Late Breakfasters (1964) reveals the ongoing mystery of the fruit:
The trouble was that no one seemed to want medlars: no one except perhaps Mrs. Hatch, and even she, like most people in such cases, seemed more concerned that the others should like medlars than happy that she liked them herself. She implied, with the faintest undertone of pugnacity, that these particular medlars had been preserved in eaxctly the recommended state of decomposition since the previous autumn, an undertaking involving much skill and difficulty, of which the present company were privileged to enjoy the benefit.
To begin with, the Duke and Duchess did not know what medlars were, and fogged themselves worse and worse with obscure Germanic polysyllables, cooing together like puzzled budgerigars. Then Edwin seemed afraid that the deliquescent fibres would damage his suit. And Griselda had experienced medlars in the past.
Pamela merely said “They look rotten.”
The Duke, speaking German, made some reference to their smell.
“Not rotten at all,” said Mrs. Hatch. “The fruit is in the finest possible condition for eating. It is properly bletted.”
“What is bletted, Melanie?” asked the Duchess.
“Medlars cannot be eaten, Odile, until they mature. Then they are the most delicious of all fruit. Try one and see for yourself.”
If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on some dogs’ bottoms, try Nigel’s recipe for medlar jelly which uses a mix of both bletted and unbletted. Now’s the time to pick the last few remaining fruit clinging to the branches or harvest from the ground for a true taste of autumn’s (albeit late) mellow fruitfulness.