Xanthe Clay: there's more to the medlar than meets the eye

The medlar is not the prettiest of fruits, but the taste is delicious  Credit: Mark Diacono

I’ve had a bowl of medlars on the kitchen table for a couple of weeks now. They are a curious fruit: the size of small apricots, with the bronzed skin of a russet apple. Most striking are the long rosehip-like calyces that surround the base, a deep indentation scored with a five pointed star. Visitors are perplexed. “Are they apples?” they ask.

Not long ago I would have posed the same question. Although medlar trees are relatively common in gardens (they have large, decorative white blossom) it’s rare to see them in shops. But I spotted a pile recently in a greengrocer’s in Bristol, and when I returned to buy some they were all gone. “Oh yes,” said the owner, “we get lots of people asking for medlars. Can’t get enough.”

The real pleasure of medlars comes if you let them soften after picking

They are ripe for a revival. Medlars have been eaten in Britain for millennia, and mentioned by Chaucer, but recently their place has been in history books, not the kitchen. Your best bet may be to ask around, or look for local urban or country forage walks – or do as I did, and put a request out on Twitter, which led me to picking a basket full from a generous friend.

Let medlars soften after picking Credit: Photo Library

Medlars’ fall from favour may be down to bad press. For a thousand years, medlars have been the Stan Laurel of fruit, the butt of countless jokes. Its old English name was in fact 'openarse’, as specified in Gerard’s Herbal published in 1633, referring to that deeply indented base. Other names were dog’s arse, or else cat’s arse.

Shakespeare, always quick to pick up on a bawdy pun, makes several medlar-based jokes. Even Romeo and Juliet are not immune. “An open-arse” says Mercutio of Juliet, adding to Romeo, “and thou a poper’in pear!” Benny Hill, eat your heart out.

I contend that medlars are in fact the British answer to the date

That said, medlars are not the easiest to deal with. They are tannic and somewhat sour when hard: not good eaten raw, but great for making jelly with, as they have plentiful pectin, the substance that ensures that jams and jellies set well. The classic use for medlars is a jelly, which makes a pleasant accompaniment to game, a more mellow redcurrant jelly, with the flavour of spiced apples. Tiptree sells a medlar jelly by mail order (£2.99 for 340g, tiptree.com )

But the real pleasure of medlars comes if you let them soften after picking, known as “bletting”. This usually takes a couple of weeks but can take a month, depending on how ripe the fruit is when picked. Spread the fruit out on a tray lined with an old tea towel, and leave in a cool room, checking them every now and then. When they are squidgy and a little shrivelled, and the flesh inside has turned a deep tawny brown, they are ready. The pulp can then be squeezed out from the tannic skin, and sucked from the five hard seeds inside. It tastes like cooked apples, with notes of spice and dates. In the past they might have been eaten as they are, or mixed with cream and honey to eat with port.

The books I looked at all describe this bletting process as “rotting”. More bad press. No wonder the medlar fell from favour – who wants to eat a rotten fruit? Well, as counsel for the defence of medlars, I contend that it’s not rotting at all – just ripening off the tree. Many pear varieties are the same, needing to be picked hard and allowed to ripen in the bowl, so the flesh doesn’t become grainy.

In a bid to rehabilitate the medlar, I contend that medlars are in fact the British answer to the date, another fruit that is generally left to go brown and soft before eating – look out for “fresh” dates which are crunchy and yellow, and sometimes found still on their stems in Middle Eastern shops, and you’ll see what I mean.

Medlars are the British answer to the date Credit: Keith Leighton/Alamy

The pulp from the bletted medlars, rubbed through a sieve to remove the pits, can be used instead of date purée in most recipes. I use them to replace some of the sugar and fat in cake recipes; for medlar custard tart (whisk with eggs and use to fill a tart case – bake in an oven until just set); whisk them with yogurt and freeze for ice cream and add a spoonful to a Middle Eastern tagine.

Medlars have a similar soft, slightly mealy texture and that caramel-fruit flavour, and if it’s not so sweet – dates are after all the sweetest fruit of all – that’s probably a good thing in these sugar-conscious times. In fact, using medlars instead of dates in a sticky toffee pudding, as Mark Diacono of Otter Farm does in the recipe below, is a definite improvement on the headache-inducing sweetness of the original. All in all, proof that medlars are worth a little meddling.