Nigel Slater, TV cook, bestselling cookery author and food columnist for The Observer, has joined the RHS grow your own campaign.
In this series, Nigel focuses on the best produce for growing and cooking.
Nigel's medlar recipes
Nigel Slater extols the virtues of a little-appreciated fruit.
Medlar trees are ideal for the medium-sized domestic garden: growing to a manageable height with beautiful blossom in spring, a handsome mantle of leaves from May onward and, in autumn, golden foliage and unusual and edible fruits.
I planted my Mespilus germanica ‘Nottingham’, a compact, upright and flavoursome medlar cultivar, just 10 years ago. Each autumn it provides enough of its extraordinary fruits to make a couple of jars of amber-coloured jelly with which to accompany roast meats and flavour gravies.
My own tree is not much taller than myself but has a large, sprawling canopy and a good show of fragile, single, white flowers that opens shortly after the nearby apple has finished. I value any fruit tree that extends the blossom season. Some cultivars of medlar – like apples, members of the rose family – can be unruly, taking on the appearance of a large bush, but these can be pruned easily in late autumn to keep them in shape. My tree offers shelter too, providing light cover for my cabbage patch.
In Medieval times, medlar was known as the ‘dog’s bottom’ tree, a name that appears rude until you inspect the fruit and realise how accurate the description was. ‘Medlar’ is a later name derived from the French language.
Harvesting and using the fruit
I watch my medlars getting fatter all summer, hoping the squirrels will keep their paws off until the fruit has just started to soften.
Once I feel the smallest amount of ‘give’ in their flesh, I harvest most of the crop then leave it in a cool place for a few weeks. Others leave theirs on the tree and let the frosts blacken the fruits. The time taken depends on the temperature and humidity of the room and the exact point at which you harvest; I find two or three weeks in a cool room is adequate. Once their skins are purplish-black, their flesh is soft and they smell slightly ‘winey’, they are ready.
This is not, it has to be said, the most versatile of kitchen ingredients, though it was once taken medicinally, as a cure for an upset stomach. You can bake the fruits whole, though they are a fiddle to eat even with the smallest of teaspoons, but their main use is in a softly set, golden-brown preserve. It gives a faintly sharp, aromatic jelly, variously said to taste winey, cidery or like apples and cinnamon, that flatters meat and game. Medlar jelly is rare and can be difficult to find in shops and markets, so we have every reason to make it for ourselves. If you have no tree of your own, some farmers’ markets in late autumn are a reliable source of fresh fruit.
The jelly was a popular preserve on Victorian tables, but has since fallen from fashion. This may well be because the fruit has to be ‘bletted’, the process of leaving the harvested fruits to blacken until they are on the verge of rotting. This removes their acute acidity and renders them soft enough for jelly making. To blet medlars, place the whole fruits on a shallow plate in a single layer; do not pile them up. Leave them at cool room temperature until they turn deep brown and are soft to the touch. They are then ready to cook or eat. Without this process medlars are too acidic to be palatable and too hard to produce juice (although the best flavoured jelly seems to result from adding a few unripe fruits, too).
At this point you can either scoop their creamy flesh out with a spoon, bake them until their texture is similar to a baked apple, or add sugar and use them to make the gloriously hued preserve. A jar always intrigues my guests, the colour varying slightly each year from golden brown to deep red. People know it isn’t redcurrant or rowan jelly that I am offering with their roast partridge, but rarely do they guess that the preserve came from my garden. An old-fashioned recipe indeed, but from a tree the size, blossom, character and longevity of which will ensure its long future in domestic gardens of any size.