Hello, old fruit…

William Clement 19 October 2009

Preserving Cambridge means looking after local sources of food and drink, says William Clement

It’s the time of year (still) for laying things down, pickling, bottling and preserving things for the sparse months of winter. There are some fruits whose need of preservation is not so much a matter of passing seasonality as passing popularity. Crab apples and medlars are old-fashioned fruits we’re not that bothered with. You can see why. Neither has anything particularly appealing about it. But with a bit of care, and some light toil, they can become something very good indeed.

The medlar is hard, very acidic and only edible uncooked after “bletting” – the process of rotting after the first frost. Its skin wrinkles and the inside becomes pulpy. It was often made into medlar jelly, or, by adding a lot of sugar and boiling to evaporate excess liquid, medlar cheese – a kind of unfashionable preserve which sets in a mould to a hard gel and can be cut.

References to the medlar in literature are abundant, largely alluding to its distinctive appearance. In her Fruit Book Jane Grigson records the story of a French peasant in 1833 innocently asking a market trader at Les Halles for “culs de chien” – dog’s arses. He meant medlars. The name is graphic and disturbingly appropriate. Earlier in Britain, James Caulfield listed it in his gloriously entitled book of 1793, Blackguardiana: or, a Dictionary of Rogues, Bawds, Pimps, Whores, Pickpockets, Shoplifters, Mail-robbers, Coiners, Housebreakers, Murderers, Pirates, Gipsies & Mountebanks &c.: “MEDLAR, a fruit, vulgarly called an open ase, of which it is more truly than delicately said, that unless it is as rotten as a t—d, it is not worth a f—t”.

But references occur long before that. Chaucer’s Reeve, for example, likens the “open-ers” medlar to “We olde men”: “Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype”. A similar metaphor would recur in Early Modern and Restoration writing, later reappearing after a polite (in Shakespeare, bowdlerised) absence, in Saki, where the medlar comes to figure an over-ripe Edwardian culture, with its implications of rottenness. Shakespeare quips on the bawdy application. Mercutio, in a famous example, says that the lovelorn Romeo will “sit under a medlar tree, / And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit / As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone. / O Romeo, that she were, O that she were / An open-arse and thou a pop’rin pear!”

The crab apple doesn’t have quite such a colourful history. Nonetheless, like medlars they come into their own as fruits for preserves. This week I made crab apple jelly and medlar chutney.  I gathered enough fallen medlars from the only tree I know in Cambridge. If there are others, let me know.

I’m a great fan of scrumping. As the French peasant found, they are hard to get hold of otherwise. I gathered crab apples from among the fallen leaves of a tree in my college, unable to find any on the market. But since both fruits grow in Cambridge it seems a thrifty, prudent and rather considerate thing to do to use them and preserve them.

Crab apples produce a pale pink, glowing jelly which is tart and a good addition to meat gravies made from pan juices – or a spoonful with cold meats, salty boiled ham in particular. The unbletted medlars in the chutney retain a satisfying texture and flavour even after an hour or two’s simmering. Their apple-y sharpness goes similarly well with cold meats but is excellent with cheese. The smell of chutney reducing on the stove with its throat-catching vinegar, deep sweetness and festive spices is the smell of autumn’s wintry turn.

Here I’ve served my preserves with a Single and a Double Gloucester from the cheese stall on the market. Our local producers and suppliers, as much snaffled fruit, deserve care and nurture. Some good bread is all that’s needed.

William Clement