Friday, 21 October 2011

Bletting the medlars

“I love you, rotten,
Delicious rottenness.

I love to suck you out from your skins
So brown and soft and coming suave,
So morbid, as the Italians say.

What a rare, powerful, reminiscent flavour
Comes out of your falling through the stages of decay:
Stream within stream.”
So wrote D. H Lawrence on the medlar in his poem, “medlars and sorb-apples” from “Birds, Beasts, and Flowers”.

The medlar is a small fruit which to look at is somewhere between a small apple and a large rosehip, and is related to both. I have a small medlar tree which crops very heavily without fail each year. The tree can often be found in old orchards or growing feral in hedgerows, especially in the Midlands, Nottinghamshire and Kent – historically regions where medlars were popular.
When young, the fruit is coated in a fine peach-like down which is lost as the fruit matures and forms a rough, course skin. It is brown-russet in colour with a bowl shaped depression at the bottom end.
The medlar was grown as a food source since at least the 2nd century BC by the ancient Greeks, who valued the tree due to the fruits’ late-ripening. Traditionally the medlar would be the last fruit to be picked in the orchard, after an abundant autumn crop of plums, pears, apples and quinces, the medlar could be left on the tree until hard frosts began. But once picked from the tree, the medlar must undergo a unique preparation before it can be eaten. The fruit must be “bletted”, or rotted. Perhaps “controlled fermentation” sounds a little more appealing.
To blett a medlar, the fruits (hard and inedible from the tree), are put in a box and covered in sawdust. Hidden beneath the sawdust, the inside of the medlars break down from a hard, bitter, acidic flesh to a moist, brown, soft and fragrant paste ready for eating. D. H. Lawrence described the bletted medlars as having “wine-skins of brown morbidity” and “an exquisite odour of leave taking”. The smell is powerful and pungent, but not over powering; like the smell of an orchard in late autumn; full of wet leaves and decaying fruit. And the flavour of the medlar at this point isn’t dis-similar; a slightly alcoholic flavour, sweet and succulent, a little acidity and an earthy, woody, appley taste.
The Victorians scooped the soft pulp from the skins, separated the 5 large seeds, and mixed the fermented medlar flesh with cream and sugar and eaten as an accompaniment for port.
As much as I like the idea of this very antiquated fruit, I have to say, there’s something about the texture of a bletted medlar that I can’t quite stomach. However, I capture the aroma by making a medlar jelly, adding sugar dulls the more “fermented” flavours and brings out a honeyed, floral quality, not unlike quinces. To make the jelly, I chop the bletted medlars roughly, cover with water and stew for 30 minutes until very soft and pulpy. I strain this through a large square of muslin for 24hours – the juice must drip through very slowly to give a smooth-texture and clear appearance, never squeeze or apply any pressure to speed up the dripping.
Measure the quantity of medlar juice you have (discard the dry pulp left in the muslin) and add the same quantity of sugar. Slowly bring to a simmer, stirring continuously to dissolve the sugar. Once you are sure all the sugar has dissolved, bring the jelly to a rolling boil for 10 minutes before testing the set. When the jelly has the level of set you want, pour into sterilised jars and allow it to cool down and set.  
The jelly is a beautiful shade of deep crimson, and is delicious served alongside game - with roast partridge, pheasant or mallard.  

The medlar (once know as "dog's-arse")


vanessa said...

beautifully written xx

RICKY said...


HryFlex said...

I bought a tree from Raintree 3 years ago and I've got lots of fruit this year. They are slowly becoming more available at farmers' markets, so you might want to ask around at one near you. They are a very late fruit; I wait to pick them until the leaves fall, and then I have to wait until they blet.

Anonymous said...

I've just been given 24 medlars by someone in the pub. Going to try "cheese" when they're bletted. Quietly excited as it's normally raspberry jam I make.