Friday, November 14, 2008

Rotten-ripe: The Medlar Goes Soft

medlar fruit The medlar tree in a detail from the tapestry <em>The Unicorn is Found</em>

Left: Medlar in fruit below the west wall of Bonnefont Cloister Garden; right: a medlar tree in a detail from the tapestry The Unicorn is Found. Learn more about the Unicorn tapestries.

Well into November, long after other autumnal fruits have fallen to the ground, the small greenish-brown fruits of the medlar tree (Mespilus germanica) cling to its crooked boughs. The fruit is not harvested until the leaves fall, when the medlars can be easily plucked, although they are still too hard and acerbic to be eaten out of hand. Experts differ as to whether exposure to a few degrees of frost, which does the fruit no harm, is important to the long ripening process to come. Once gathered, the fruits are placed stem-side down in straw and stored in a cool, dark place for several weeks until they are rotten-ripe and the pulp has turned into a delicious mush—a process known as bletting. (Lee Reich, Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention, 1992). 

Medlars begin to bear at an early age, and the three small medlar trees planted below the east wall of Bonnefont Cloister Garden three years ago now boast a few dozen fruits. The kind grown here is ‘Nottingham,’ reputed to be the tastiest of several available cultivars. We plan to blet our little crop in straw and enjoy them in the simplest way, just by sucking the softened pulp from the skins, savoring the distinctive taste, which is something like a spicy apple butter, and spitting out the five large pips. Medlars also make excellent jellies and tarts.

A familiar orchard fruit throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, the medlar is even less well-known in this country than its relative the quince. Like apples and pears, quinces and medlars are members of the Maloideae, a subfamily of the Rosaceae, or rose, family.

Despite the species name germanicus, the medlar is native to Asia Minor and to southeastern Europe; it is thought to have been brought to Germany by the Romans, and is now widely naturalized throughout central and northern Europe. It is one of several kinds of fruit trees shown growing in the monastic orchard-cemetery on the plan of St. Gall, and is listed in a  ninth-century edict, the Capitulare de villis, in which the emperor Charlemagne decreed which plants were to be grown on the imperial estates.

The tenth-century Saxon grammarian Aelfric translated the Latin mespilus as “openaers,” and that rude Old English name was still in use in Chaucer’s day:

But if I fare as dooth an open-ers
That ilke fruit is ever lenger the wers
Til it be roten in mullock or in straw
We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype;

Translation:
Unless I fare as does the fruit of the medlar
That same fruit continually grows worse
Until it is rotten in rubbish or in straw.
We old men, I fear, fare like that:
Until we are rotten, we can not be ripe.

From The Reeve’s Prologue, ll. 3872–3875. (Interlinear translation by L. D. Benson.)

As with many medieval food plants, the medlar had medicinal virtues.  The anatomically suggestive form was a sign of its therapeutic benefit:

Eat Medlars, if you have a looseness gotten,
They bind, and yet your urine they augment,
They have one name more fit to be forgotten,

While hard and sound they be, they be not spent,
Good Medlars are not ripe, til seeming rotten,
For meddling much with Medlars some are shent.

From Chapter 102 of The Englishman’s Doctor, Sir John Harington’s 1607 translation of the medieval Regimen Sanitatis.

—Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (16)

  1. thea mcginnis Says:

    i’ve never heard of this fruit. thank you for the info, and the medieval references, both literary and medicinal. fascinating. thanks!

  2. mary jane cryan Says:

    I was happy to learn what the fruit tree is that sits next to our 80 olive trees we just harvested here in central Italy…in a town that is under the protection of the English crown since 1512..and Henry VIII.
    An American visitor told me what the plant’s name was, the locals just let it grow and then suck the fruit, if the birds dont get it first. It seems to be the same tree seen in medieval tapestries…we will take good care of it now that I know what it is. http://www.elegantetruria.com

  3. Sally Yap Says:

    I’ve read and heard of medlars, though have never eaten them. I’ve just written about persimmons in my blog, A G.arden I.s T.he A.nswer T.o Everything, or A-gitate. It seems persimmons and medlars are similar in that they need to be subjected to freeze to ripen enough to be edible. And like the medlar, persimmons have to be practically rotten to be really tasty. There is a recipe for persimmon cookies in my post; medlars may work in the recipe, though I don’t know that they’d be available at the greengrocers.

  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Mary Jane,

    I’m interested to hear that you have medlars growing near your olive grove. I’ve never seen them growing in Italy, although I think that D. H. Lawrence’s beautiful poem, ‘Medlars and Sorb-Apples,’ was written there. The handsomest medlar I’ve every seen was a venerable specimen in the Oxford Botanic Garden. Speaking of England, I’m intrigued by your mention of your town’s being under the protection of the English crown since the 16th century—can you tell me more?

  5. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Sally,

    I have to admit that I have never eaten a persimmon, although I remember seeing Diospyros virginiana growing in the Native Plant garden at The New York Botanical Garden many years ago. Your recipe sounds delicious—I just might try it with persimmons, which I should be able to get a a greengrocer’s. Thanks also for the information about the availability of persimmon paste. You can’t buy medlars for love nor money. Ours are bletting out in the Garden shed, and are coming along. They may be ready for the staff holiday party at The Cloisters on December 5th, but we’re not planning to do anything much with them—just suck them out of their skins! I’ve planted two medlars in my upstate garden which are not bearing yet. If I ever get a big enough crop I’ll certainly try cooking with them.

  6. Klara Says:

    Medlars are lovely and I especially like the mottled color the leaves turn in autumn. Although I have a young medlar tree, it has yet to fruit. I loved the closeup from the Unicorn tapestries; there are so many interesting plants depicted in exquisite detail.

  7. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Klara,

    You should not have to wait too long; medlars have a propensity to fruit early. The first crop might be very sparse, but your tree should come on quickly after that. We had considerably more fruit on our three-year old medlars this year than last. We bletted the medlars in baskets lined with clean wheatstraw and left them in the cool of the Gardens shed until they were soft—we had stored them away in the second week of November, and they were ready to eat by the end of the first week in December. We put them out on the dessert table for a holiday staff party here at the Museum last Friday, and they were quickly eaten up.

  8. Claudia Rousseau Says:

    Does anyone have any information about medieval/renaissance medicinal uses of the caper flower?

  9. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Claudia,

    Capers, Capparis spinosa, of which both the pickled flower buds and the fruits or berries are eaten, are discussed in the medieval health handbook known as the Tacuinum Sanitatis, or Tables of Health. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacuinum_sanitatis

    The handbook deals with dietary prescriptions for balancing the four humors in individuals of different ages, temperaments, and conditions. According to the Tacuinum, capers are of medicinal value for their warming and drying properties.

    Based on an eleventh-century Arabic medical treatise, the work survives in three complete illuminated manuscripts, all of which were produced in Italy in the late fourteenth century. These are now in Paris, Vienna, and the Casanatense Library in Rome.

    According to Luisa Cogliati Arano, both the Paris and the Casatenense manuscripts characterize capers as warm in the third degree and dry in the second. Their warming and drying qualities are said to be medicinally useful in reducing the quantity of urine, although they also reduce blood and sperm, which is considered a detriment. The danger of the latter is said to be neutralized by consuming them with vinegar.

    The Vienna manuscript, which lists capers as warm in the second degree, has a fuller explication of their medicinal virtues. They are said to help the stomach and increase the appetite, remove occlusions of the liver and the spleen, and kill worms. According to this manuscript, they are difficult to digest and should be cooked with oil, vinegar, and aromatic spices. Capers are also said to heat the blood and to be suitable for people with cold temperaments, for consumption in winter and in cold regions, and for both old people and children. (Luisa Cogliati Arano, The Medieval Health Handbook: Tacuinum Sanitatis, 1976)

  10. mary jane cryan Says:

    There is a lot of information on the town of Vetralla’s English connections on my website http://www.elegantetruria.com and even more on my up-coming book. “Etruria Past and Present” which will be published in a few months…we are checking the proofs now. Its not easy to produce a book in English here in small town Italy.

    About the capers…they grow spontaneously on all the south facing walls of this town and nearby Villa Lante, the magnificent Renaissance gardens. The cardinals who lived there enjoyed them (they considered them aphrodosiac) as well as sorbets for they had an underground “snow house” too.

  11. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Mary Jane,

    Thank you very much for the information about capers—I had not known that they were considered aphrodisiac. It has been a long time since I have had the happiness of visiting Etruria, and envy you your caper-covered dwelling-place.

  12. Evelyn Majidi Says:

    I have just discovered this wonderful website. Many thanks, Deirdre, for making all of this information available. In an earlier incarnation I spent many years in Iran, where medlars (known in Persian as asgeel) are as common in the autumn as apples are here. The variety Iranians cultivate are more elongated than the ones pictured here, and they are delicious. I never tried cooking them (no Iranian would think of cooking them) but one time I made a superb liquor by forcing the crushed fruit through cheesecloth, adding vodka to the juice, and letting the mixture steep. I planted a medlar here in New York some years ago, but after two years of producing lovely flowers and a few fruit, it died. In removing the tree I noticed that an insect completely girdled its trunk, just below the surface of the earth. Better luck with yours!

  13. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Evelyn,

    I’m glad you found your way to our medlars, and am very interested to hear that the fruits are not cooked in Iran. I haven’t cooked with them myself—I think that they are delicious softened and rotten-ripe, and are very good with fortified wines. The liquor made with vodka sounds intriguing. We did not have as good a crop last autumn as we had the year before, but I look forward to next year. I’m also growing medlars at my country place upstate, but they are not bearing yet—it is in the mountains and the winter there is long and cold, which slows everything down.

  14. looloo Says:

    Hello,
    I`ve a 15 year old medlar tree here in Gloucestershire, and it produces huge amounts of fruit each year, the locals (who call it Fanny Fruit, Sorry!) collect the fruit after it has fallen & make delicious Medlar jelly, however my 4 year old Burmese cat eats the new leaves, she seems to be fine, can anyone give me a possible reason why?

  15. Christa Says:

    Perhaps your cat needs vegetables in her diet. We had a cat that used to climb the Liquidambar tree in the front yard in the spring and eat the budding leaves, until we started feeding her a cat food that had diced carrots in it. After that she quit eating the leaves, and that was always her favorite variety of cat food.

  16. Ed Widger Says:

    I have a Medlar tree in my garden approx thirty years old. Last year the leaves turned brown and crisp and fell off. I thought it might be the very wet summer causing this problem. However, this year the same problem has occurred, during the month of June, which was an unusually dry month. Can someone advise on what is the cause of this problem?

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