Robert May, on Making a ‘Tart of Medlers’

"Take medlers that are rotten, strain them, and set them on a chafing-dish of coals, season them with sugar, cinamon, and ginger, put some yolks of eggs to them, let it boil a little, and lay it in a cut tart ; being baked, scrape on sugar."

Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook: Or, the Art and Mystery of Cookery (1665)

The medlar has to be one of the most interesting, yet largely unknown and generally un-sung, of all the orchard fruits. This strange-looking thing[1] seems to be a cross between an over-ripe, shrunken apple and an under-coloured, brown-green rosehip. And for good reason: the medlar is a member of the rose family and therefore related to apples, pears, plums, and the vast majority of other stone, pome and soft fruit.

Medlars usually ripen in late October or November, depending on weather conditions, which means it’s almost time for them to start dropping from the tree. Once they do, they’ll need to ‘blet’ or over-ripen, for a while before they’re edible; they’ll be rock-hard before that stage. Once they are bletted they take on a flavour that’s hard to describe, yet unforgettable once you’ve tried it. Some people hate it instantly, others will initially tolerate it and come to appreciate its finer nuances in time, and a lucky few will fall in love on the spot.

Assuming you have access to a supply of medlars[2] there are various ways you can utilise them and the holder of the national collection of medlars, Jane Steward (@EastgateLarder on Twitter), has written a book of medlar history, lore and recipes – to be published by Prospect Books in April next year – which I’m sure will explore and expand upon the full potential of the medlar:

But it’s a long old time ’til next April and the medlars will be ready quite soon, so whilst we wait I thought I’d post one or two recipes from the historical archives, just to whet your appetite and get your imagination going.

Let’s start with the aformentioned ‘Tart of Medlers’ recipe from Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1665). Nice and simple to interpret and follow, albeit with one or two additional notes: when he says “take rotten medlers”, I reckon he means the bletted fruit, rather than actually rotten fruit; nothing moldy, or so mushy it’s practically liquified. “Strain them” probably means to pass them through a collander – as I did when I made medlar cheese and medlar jelly last year – rather than a sieve, in order to separate the pulp from the large seeds and rough skins.

Then you put the pulp into a chafing-dish – a pan on a stove should work just as well fine – and add spices to taste, as well as the yolks of four eggs, which should give the mixture a lovely, custardy consistency. Then Robert says to “let it boil a little”. I’d strongly suggest a low to medium simmer rather than a hard, rolling boil – medlar pulp tends to be quite volcanic when over-heated and the last thing you want to be doing is trying to wash a glob of the stuff from your eyeball – so bring it to just enough of a “boil” to cook everything through, before pouring the mix into a “cut tart”. Not being much of a pastry chef myself, I’m going to assume this means a prepared tart-case, blind-baked beforehand to reduce the risk of soggy bottom. Then bake the tart until it’s done[3] and then sprinkle it over with sugar to serve.

Over to you. Do you have access to a supply of medlars? Does this ‘tart of medlers’ sound simple enough to have a go at making? If it’s a “yes” on both counts, please do let me know how you get on, via the comments below. And don’t forget to pre-order Jane Steward’s Medlars – Growing & Cooking for delivery next April for much, much more on the marvellous medlar.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The medlar has some strange nick-names as well: I’ve heard that the French call it “cul-de-chien“, which means “dog’s arse”, and the olde English version seems to be the even more delightful “open arse”, although I’ve not found a published historical source for that one just yet, pomologists back in the day being a generally genteel and politely-spoken lot.
2 If you visit Ordsall Hall in Salford this November and tip the head gardener a donation to the Hall’s upkeep then she might be able to spare you a couple of kilos of medlars from the two trees in the Hall’s heritage orchard… but you didn’t hear that from me, okay? Mum’s the word.
3 Sorry, you’re on your own there, temperature- and timing- wise. I’d suggest seeking advice online from those wiser in the ways of baking than I.

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