The medlar is truly the strangest fruit I have ever come across. Despite our foraging endeavours, neither my mum nor myself had ever even heard of this rather wonderful fruit before this autumn, when I was presented with a bucket of them by the gardener of the National Trust property at which I worked.
This ugly duckling of a fruit is actually a member of the rose family, and once you know this you can see a little of their swan-like cousins the rose when you compare it to a rose-hip. Medlars were apparently eaten in the medieval era, right up to Victorian times, when they dropped off their trees and out of fashion. I wonder why that could be?
Perhaps the French name for medlars, cul-du-chien, will give you a clue as to their unappealing appearance and later audience’s put-off reaction. Snobby French eh? I mean it’s not all about a pretty face.
Although then again, there is the fact that before you can eat this fruit it has a specific ripening process called bletting, which is actually more akin to rotting.
A medieval fruit that notoriously resembles a dog’s bottom and that you have to leave to rot before you can eat it. I was desperate to have a go with it of course.
However, before I could manage to make something I came up against a few hurdles in my medlar jelly making.
Firstly, and one notable disadvantage to not having a kitchen of one’s own, my medlars were meddled with. Sadly, their affinity in appearance and smell to a pile of rotting mulch worked against them, and upon finding the pan in the utility room my dad threw them onto the compost. (Actually, I exaggerate – the smell isn’t that bad!). Fortunately, a panicked email to my friend the Chastleton House gardener, resulted in him kindly salvaging me a final foraged bag of the season from this rare tree!
This correspondence alerted me to another important thing… he had found setting the jelly difficult and had ended up with a rather runny result. I subsequently read in the River Cottage jams and jellies book that medlars are very low in pectin, and so require a bit of extra persuasion. I found this in the form of adding apples (which are naturally high in pectin), using jam (pectin-enhanced) sugar, and employing my rarely-used jam-thermometer to keep an eye on its setting progress. I struggled to get the jam up to 104 degrees and I didn’t want to overcook it and either lose its setting consistency, which happens if you boil it for too long, or burn it, but didn’t want to under-cook it either! In the end I settled for the fact that it starting to congeal at the bottom of the pan and send lumps into the rest of the mixture was a sign that my cauldron of medlar magic was on the turn into jelly.
The results… a particularly firmly set, clear and beautifully orange-pink jelly. I’m going to save this for a huge autumn cheeseboard I’m planning with many of my foraged delights from this year, to share on my birthday weekend with some friends!
(Thanks to Dom for these lovely bubbling cauldron photos!)
Medlar Jelly (My take on David Lebovitz’ recipe)
- 1.4kg medlars (bletted)
- A couple of apples
- 1/2 lemon
- 600g sugar (I used jam sugar which has pectin in, as medlars don’t have much natural pectin)
Preparing the fruit liquid:
Rinse & roughly chop medlars and apples, including skins & seeds, then place into a large pot with lemon, covered in around 2l liquid (enough for fruit pieces to float).
Boil gently for around 45 mins (or enough time to go for a walk & do some errands… not an exact science!).
With a large pan underneath to catch the liquid, pour the whole caboodle into a straining cloth, which you then hang above the pan overnight. Don’t press/squish the fruit through the cloth or you’ll have a cloudy jelly!
Making the jam:
Put a saucer in the freezer before you do anything else – this will help you check setting point, especially if you have no thermometer.
Take your large pan of liquid and add the sugar. I divided my mixture into two pans and made the two jellies separately as the big one was boiling over otherwise! Stir to dissolve the sugar, then boil until it reaches 104ºC or until you can daub a bit on the saucer and within around a minute it wrinkles when you push it with a finger. Once ready, pour into sterilised jars.
When cooled slightly, put the lid on tightly and shake the jelly – it reseals the jar.