The medlar fruit is a member of the pome family (related to apples and quinces), peculiar since it is only eaten once it’s been 'bletted', that is, rotted. Not quite purple and not quite red, the vitamin-packed fruit turns brown and soft when edible. And unlike other fruits, medlars are available in winter, making this rather maligned shrub fruit a great seasonal choice.
How to use medlar fruit
The medlar, or Mespilus germanica, has been cultivated since ancient times and was once a commonly eaten and symbolic fruit described in literary prose. The tree is native to the area surrounding modern-day Iran and was introduced to Western Europe by the Romans. It used to be widely eaten in Britain through the 19th century but fell out of favour when more appealing fruit and sugary sweets came into popularity.
Medlars are harvested around November, preferably after a period of frost which allows the fruit to better ripen. They are then to be stored in dark and cool places whilst the bletting process continues, such as in ventilated wooden boxes lined with straw or paper. They can also just be placed and covered on a plate, with the bottom end face down. Bletting takes some time, but once the fruits start to brown and get wrinkly - fermented - you know you’re on your way. Very ripe medlar will burst at the lightest touch, so take caution when you’re taking the pulp out. Peel off the stalk gently, hold the crown, and squeeze the flesh out. They have a few large pips, so be careful to remove those before eating.
With a squidgy pulp and texture, medlars lend themselves well to numerous applications. Once fully bletted they can be eaten raw alongside crème fraîche or yoghurt and are a great accompaniment to cheese. Or, purée the pulp with melted butter or cream and add honey or sweet spices to soften the flavour, along with a dash of port.
As the fruit is high in pectin, it’s well-suited for making into jelly or paste by cooking then sieving and adding sugar if you choose. Another popular way of preparing them is by turning them into “medlar cheese,” a type of curd with eggs, butter and sugar.
What does medlar fruit taste like?
There are different varieties of the medlar fruit, the most available and flavoursome being Royal and Nottingham. Other varieties have slightly different tastes, and some are known as an entirely different fruit. The Spanish medlar, also known as the Spanish cherry, is small and bright orange and has traditionally been used for mouthwash. The Red medlar is actually the goji berry, eaten when dried and chewy. The Japanese medlar, meanwhile, is really a loquat tree and is sometimes called a Japanese or Chinese plum - or in Italy nespole, out of which is made a liqueur called nespolino.
Bletting is necessary to turn the otherwise hard and astringent flesh into an edible fruit. When completely bletted, the medlar is very squishy and very sweet. Its taste is similar to an over-ripe date, complex and sugary. Some say it has a flavour like toffee apples or apple butter, with a hint of acidity balancing out the sweetness. Others yet claim it is an acquired taste, with a smell similar to aged - some might say rancid - wine.
1. Rinse and quarter the medlars, and put them in a large pot – skins, seeds, and all. Chop up the apple and add, with the seeds and core, as well. Then add the lemon half to the pot, and pour in enough water so that the medlars are floating in liquid, about 2 quarts (2l).
2. Cook the mixture until it begins to boil, then reduce the heat and let it cook at a low boil for 45 minutes.
3. Line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth or gauze, set it over a deep bowl, and ladle the cooked medlars and the liquid into the colander. Let it strain overnight undisturbed. Do not press down on the cooked fruit to extract more juice from it or your jelly will be cloudy. (It’s very tempting, but resist.)
4. The next day pour the liquid into a large pot – you should have about 1 quart (1l). Put a small plate in the freezer. Add the sugar to the juice in the pot and cook the jelly until it reaches 220ºF (104ºC) or until it jells, which may happen a little before or after that temperature.
To test the jelly, put a spoonful on the plate in the freezer and let chill a few minutes. If, once cold, it wrinkles when you push it with your finger, it’s done. If not, continue to cook the jelly until it jells. When ready, if you wish, you can offset sweetness with a few drops of fresh lemon juice.
5. Ladle the jelly into clean jars.
The jelly will keep for up to one year in the refrigerator.
Or, use medlars to fill a scrumptious tart like in this recipe inspired by Doves Farm.
100g Wholemeal flour
100g plain all-purpose flour
100g butter, softened
7 tbsp cold water
400g fully bletted medlars
1 orange, grated rind and juice
½ tsp mixed spice
2 tbsp cream
Put the two flours and butter into a large bowl.
Using a pastry blender or fork, mash the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs.
Sprinkle six tablespoons of water over the flour and stir to bring together a ball of dough. If it does not do this easily, add a few more drops of water. Cover the dough and leave it to stand for 15 minutes.
Roll out the pastry to a 4mm thickness and lift it into your prepared dish. Alternatively, press the pastry into a baking dish using your fingers.
Lay a large piece of parchment over the raw pastry, making sure all the edges are covered.
Scatter ceramic baking beans (or rice or flour) over the parchment, spreading them all over the surface.
Bake for 20 minutes then remove it from the oven and carefully lift the parchment and contents off the pastry.
Peel the medlars and remove the stones.
Roughly chop the medlars into a bowl, add the honeycomb, grated orange rind and juice, mixed spice, cream and egg and stir to combine.
Tip the medlar mixture into the prepared pastry case and bake for 50 - 55 minutes.
Serve warm or cold.
Where to buy medlars
Medlars aren’t the easiest fruit to find. You won’t get them in your local supermarket, and will be hard-pressed to get them even at a farmer’s market. Your best bet is to forage them yourself or make friends with someone who has a medlar tree growing in their backyard. Or, plant a tree yourself - many nurseries and fruit farms sell the medlar as an ornamental tree. Wait until autumn to harvest the overripe fruit, and you’ll be making medlar jelly in no time.