It is rather fascinating how this once beloved and widely spread tree/shrub had been largely forgotten. Thanks to the rising discussion on biodiversity and interest in heirloom trees it is making a slow comeback. We would like to give this a little push 😉 You might enjoy listening to our curated playlist Seraphia while reading this article.
In The Netherlands a few varieties are available as tree plant or as fruit (see below). We are very fond of the variety Bredase Reus (= The Giant from Breda) due to the size of its fruit. And since the tree dates back thousands of years it has a rich history and can be found in many old paintings, literature, poetry and not least of them all baking.
So firstly, let us take you onto a small journey back in time when the medlar was quite a protagonist in many a book.
It is a very old cultivar and references of it can be found in literature from our hemisphere dating back to Roman / Greek times. It was certainly a rather popular fruit during the Middle Ages and up to Victorian times in Europe. Originally, it made its way to our latitudes from the Black Sea coastal region, Persia and southwest Asia.
The tree is greatly ornamental with its large white five leaved blossoms that appear in late spring/early summer (depending on weather conditions). The fruit looks a lot like a giant rose hip, not exactly surprising since the medlar is a member of the rose family, just like apples and pears. Which is a probable reason for why the fruit may have fallen out of favour: apples and pears are immediately available for consumption after picking.
The medlar fruit cannot be consumed directly after picking, as they have to ‘ripen’ before being edible (unless temperatures were below freezing point). One can use them upon picking only for making jelly and thus cooking them with spices but not for direct consumption or for cake baking. In order to be able to eat them one must wait until they are ‘bletted’ on the inside. Then the sturdy pale yellowish-greenish flesh turns brownish and soft into a sort of mash (you can feel it from the outside, as they become soft to the touch). Just like with pears this process increases the sugars and reduces the acids inside the fruit, making it oozy and sweet.
The mushy inside does not look awfully charming, we admit. However, the taste is rather amazing and outstanding, it has a sweet tartness to it, resembling a mixture of quince, pear, rose hip and apple in one. We typically leave our medlars in a wicker or water-hyacinth basket, lined with paper and wait for the flesh to blet.
The best part about medlars, we think, is that they are available in winter. Currently, in The Netherlands a lot of fruit can be purchased out of season. However, medlars are a true winter season fruit, available as of November (depending on weather conditions). So, if you are looking for a low CO2 footprint fruit, go local with medlars. Additionally, they are exquisite heirloom trees attracting many pollinators.
Medlars have been featured in many Dutch paintings up until modernity. Mostly as part of a still life and sometimes even depicted on their own. Because of their particular appearance they are unmistakably recognisable – if one nowadays knows at least what they are.
Images courtesy of Creative Commons, RKD, Henk Helmantel, Jan Teunissen
In England and France of the olden days medlars were referred to as open-arse and cul-de-chien (=doggy ass, pardon our French) respectively. We probably do not have to extend many words as to why this particular name was given to the unwitting fruit…
In Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet, the fruit receives a rather graphic honourable mention.
In Act 2, Scene 1 when Mercutio and Benvolio talk about Romeo the following dialogue takes place:
Come, he hath hid himself among these trees,
To be consorted with the humorous night:
Blind is his love and best befits the dark.
If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
An open et caetera, thou a poperin pear!
Romeo, good night: I’ll to my truckle-bed;
This field-bed is too cold for me to sleep:
Come, shall we go?
Note how instead of open-arse the word is substituted with open et caetera. And should you not know that a poplin pear is a 16 century euphemism for a phallus (see also rather amusingly co-incidental below botanical illustration) then now you are up-to-date with it all and will maybe not be surprised to read that the German and French translations of this particular part of the dialogue (the 2 lines: Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
An open et caetera, thou a poperin pear!) are translated very differently.
The German version omits them entirely. And the French translation changes the entire fruit/tree from medlar to peach and that Romeo would dream of committing to his mistress under afore mentioned tree. It is a rather subtle sketch compared to the English original…
If you are thinking of cooking with medlars, you might want to try out our Medlar and Pear Cake recipe. Which we created with a tongue-in-cheek reference after reading Romeo and Juliet and stumbling upon above dialogue piece. There is even a rather literal botanical painting of a medlar and pear by G. Bocskay and J. Hoefnagel.
A few hundred years ago it was highly fashionable to make confitures (=jams). They were even deemed medicinal. Difficult to imagine nowadays, especially when thinking of Diabetes Type 2. When we look back at recipes, the oldest ‘recipe book‘ for confiture dates back to the mid 16th century and the writer is not a cook but, by origin, an apothecary, Nostradamus.
Confitures were typically not made with sugar back then as this was a costly and not yet readily available ingredient put away for the rich upper classes. It was available in apothecary stores (as it was deemed medicinal). Instead, confitures were made with honey.
And this is the moment for our heroes to enter the play: curtains lift and medlars arrive on scene, ta-daaa! Why? Medlars are naturally very sweet – after bletting – and yet high in pectine – before bletting. You can therefore mix bletted and freshly picked medlars and create a terrific confiture without having to add any honey or sugar whatsoever. Brilliant!
Medlar confiture was an excellent companion to game, bread and cheese. And it still is. Fancy trying it? You can make your own or simply buy the excellent versions from Boerderij ‘t Geertje (straight forward medlar taste) or Smits Specialiteiten (reminds us of Christmas because of the spices, lovely, especially with game).
To see those absolutely stunning old paintings make your way to the RKD and key in “mispel” in the search function. Mispel is the Dutch word for medlar.
For the real fruit, plant the lovely tree in your garden and harvest your own. Ten Hoven Bomen delivers high quality medlar trees. We recommend the variety Mespilus germanica ‘Bredase Reus’ as the fruit are large and very well suited for cooking/eating. This is also the type we use in our recipe.
Or visit the fantastic Jomajole nursery or De Sfeerstal if you just want to buy the fruit. Make sure you get fruit that is rather large (at least 3cm in diameter) otherwise you will not be a happy camper de-pitting them and disappointed with the amount of pulp you can get out, if using bletted fruit). For jam or jelly the size is not really relevant as you would use the entire fruit after a good clean of the exterior.
All external photographs are used for illustration purposes only and we have mentioned their origin or owner. We claim no right to the photographs and do not allow for their distribution without prior consent of the original source/owner.