Sunday 12 December 2010

Meddling with the forces of Nature

The humble medlar, a mystifying bullet of a fruit
This a medlar. I’d heard of them but never actually seen one until a man turned up selling punnets of them at the market the other day. He advised that I could either make a jelly from them now or wait until they were “bletted” and eat them raw.

It turns out that, while related to the apple, they are actually part of the rose family, native to Persia and cultivated by the Romans, whence they spread all over Europe. They fruit late and are hardy enough to grow in all manner of conditions, even Scandinavia.

But they’re pretty tough even when ripe, hence the idea of the bletting—which basically means leaving them to soften. The Victorians used to sit them in damp sawdust or bran to blet, bringing them to the table in their sawdust. But how do you know when a medlar is bletted? (Sounds like a question for Rambling Syd Rumpo.)

Note the darkened, wrinkled skin of the first fruit I tried
After a week or so I noticed that one side of one of them was dark, soft and slightly wrinkled, do I delved in. The flesh had browned, with a few cavities appearing: it looked frankly off and had that powdery texture of an apple that is past its best. Out of curiosity I tried a bit that was still pale green and firm. It does taste like an apple but tart and with an extraordinarily dry mouthfeel. Not inedible but it’s hard to see why you would eat one when you could eat an apple instead.

From Alan Davidson’s The Oxford Companion to Food I learn that bletting is an “internal fermentation” that “gives the fruit an acid, aromatic taste that appeals to some and not to others”. D. H. Lawrence referred to them as “wineskins of brown morbidity, autumnal excrement”, giving off an “exquisite odour of leave-taking”. Probably wouldn’t work on the poster.

So it seems that the soft brown “off” flesh I discarded may have been precisely the delicacy I was looking out for. The Victorians used to scoop this out and mix it with sugar and cream for a dessert.

I originally decided to include this post simply out of curiosity, even though it didn’t really have anything to do with booze. But that reference to “fermentation” makes me realise that, when correctly bletted, there is something boozy going on. Those crafty Victorians, getting blatted on bletted fruit.

Four days later I noticed that the remaining medlars were beginning to soften to the touch, though without the exterior darkening. I sliced one in half and was surprised to see that the flesh was brown again, though this time without the pitting of the last fruit I tried. All one’s senses and experience say, “Do not eat this—it is putrefying,” but I decided to give it a go all the same.

The flesh of what I guess is a properly bletted medlar, now with the consistence of chestnut purée
This time it was rather different. The texture is like that of chestnut purée and the taste is like apple—baked apple, just as the man in the market said it would be. There are large seeds inside too, hidden in the sticky brown pulp, which take up much of the body of the fruit. And I wouldn’t describe it as a “wineskin” exactly—but I can just imagine mixing this with cream.

Subsequent investigation showed that they eventually pass over and become less pleasant, like that first one I tried. But at their peak they taste and feel remarkably like luscious, slow barked apple, with strong hints of almond.

Is there a place for the medlar in mixology? I doubt it. It doesn’t produce juice, exactly, though perhaps the molecular crowd could try fashioning some of the paste-like pulp into a quenelle and using it as a garnish or allowing it to sink to the bottom of the glass like a shipwrecked cargo of ambergris or frankincense. Actually its most useful characteristic is probably that incredibly dry mouthfeel of the under-ripe ones: when we were last at 69 Colebrooke Row Tony was extracting a tannin essence from grapeseeds solely so that he could use it to make a drier-than-dry Martini. I think a medlar could give it a run for its money.


  1. I tried making medlar jelly last year. There's a tree in my parents-in-law's garden which groans with fruit every year. It was an unmitigated failure, enough to put me off trying this year, but I might feel recovered enough to try again next year...

  2. The man I bought them from did say I could either make jelly with them then, while they were hard, or blet them and eat them raw. I confess the first option seemed too much like hard work compared to simply watching something prepare itself.