Yesterday at work – Ordsall Hall, Salford’s hidden gem of a Tudor-era (with many later additions and amendments) historic house – we spent some time in the heritage orchard, weeding and renewing the tree circles around the base of our heritage fruit trees.
Two of the trees in the orchard have a great deal of heritage: the medlar (Mespilus germanica) is a venerable fruit indeed, which was written about by the Greek polymath Strabo (64 or 63 BC – c. 24 AD) and has quite possibly been cultivated for around 3,000 years.
The trees at Ordsall Hall were planted in 2011/12 and so are around ten years old. They’ve been fruiting prolifically for as long as I’ve worked and studied there (about 5 years now), and this year it looks like they’ll be producing another bumper crop:
The first tree is testament to the medlar’s ability to grow in quite adverse conditions. It’s quite heavily shaded by a row of black mulberry trees – just out of shot to the left, you can see some of the foliage at the top of the pic – but nevertheless is a strong and healthy specimen.
The second tree is at the opposite end of the orchard to the first and grows in full light, but strangely it doesn’t seem to be quite as robust. Maybe its roots are a little more water-logged in winter – the ground in the orchard is quite heavy clay, and suffers a lot of compaction from visitor and gardener footfall through the year – or maybe it’s just not so strong an individual tree. It still fruits well though; the group of medlars in the third pic are growing on that tree, as is the single medlar in the main pic at the top of the article.
The medlar crop won’t be ready to pick until much later in the year: November or perhaps even December, depending on the weather. Ideally, an early frost would start the process of softening (bletting) the rock-hard fruit whilst they’re still on the tree, and then once they do begin to fall, it’s time to gather them up, spread them out on trays and let them stand in a cool spot for a couple of weeks longer. It’s important to keep an eye on them to make sure bletting doesn’t tip over into rotting; do remove any truly manky specimens as soon as you spot them so they don’t affect the rest.
Once the fruits are fully bletted, they’re ready for use, either eating raw – definitely an acquired taste, they have a very peculiar flavour that some people love instantly and others just can’t get their head around – or, more commonly, stewing down and making into jelly, jam, medlar cheese or chutney and – presumably if you have the patience to extract the sticky flesh from the tough skins and remove all the large and definitely inedible pips – medlar pies or tarts. You can also use them to flavour gin or vodka, maybe even brandy. You should probably get in touch with Jane Steward of Eastgate Larder in Norfolk if you’re interested in trying a few different medlar-flavoured products, as she specialises in growing medlars and producing jelly, cheese and chutney every Autumn.
I usually eat a few raw medlars each year, just to remind myself of their unique flavour, but I have to confess they’re not my favourite fruit. But I do think that medlar jelly is a lovely accompaniment to hot or cold meats, a sharp cheese, or just spread on toast, and medlar syrup goes very nicely with porridge or ice-cream.
How about you? Are you a medlar fan? Do you grow your own? Do let me know, via the comments.
|⇧1||Baird, J.R., Thieret, J.W. The medlar (Mespilus germanica, Rosaceae) from antiquity to obscurity. Econ Bot 43, 328–372 (1989). DOI|
|⇧2||The secretary of our allotment association is a huge medlar fan and makes a batch of chutney and jelly every year with some of the fruit from these very trees.|
|⇧3||I’d have to ask my boss, she’s a much more experienced fruit-booze-wrangler than I am.|