Thursday, 20 October 2011
I’m lucky enough to have my own, very prolific, Medlar tree which must be well over 100 years old. The original trunk is still there, though the tree has rejuvenated itself sending up new stems from the base. The branches are long, and as the fruit grows heavy, they bend to the ground making the tree even more romantic. My hens love to dust bath and generally lurk between it’s weeping branches. Little Pip particularly, can often be seen peeping out between the leaves and ripening fruit. She feels safe under there and no one who visits here ever notices her carefully watching.
Medlar fruit don’t generally ripen until well into late Autumn, but the hot temperatures in September this year are encouraging my medlars to race ahead. August was wet, and in actual fact great for the medlar tree, and all my apple and pear trees. The medlars, like the apples, are large and abundant this year
The medlar tree is originally from the Middle East, where temperatures are much higher enabling the fruit to ripen on the tree. In the UK, the tree is regarded as a curiosity from Medieval and Tudor times when it was in its heyday. It’s not a delicate tree, mine goes through roasting hot summers in France and freezing cold winters that are far more extreme than the UK.
The blossom in spring is very pretty. Although similar in shape to apple or pear blossom, the flowers are much bigger. The petals are serated around the edges and white with a creamy centre. Each flower sits framed by a simple arrangement of long dark, lime green leaves. Eventually, the tree is covered head to toe, with these bold, cheerful flowers, a joy to see after a dull, dreary winter.
My tree is just inside the entrance to our house and is growing over the water course that feeds the well. This could be the reason the tree has endured so long and so healthily, with a ready supply of water below.
I leave the fruit on my tree there for as long as possible, allowing the starches in the medlar to turn to sugars. When it’s ripe and soft, it drops to the ground where I have old bed sheets and tarpaulin spread out to catch them.
You don’t have to do it this way. It is possible to pick the fruit and leave it to blet (or rot), a brown paper lined cardboard box works best. But in my opinion, the longer the fruit stays on the tree the better the flavour.
It seems to be the bletting part of the Medlar jelly process that people find tedious, I have a few tips that help make it simpler but... medlar jelly, like most preserves, requires a bit of effort.
THE DOG’S ARSE or CUL DE CHIEN
Yes, it does sort of look like one. This is the scatalogical joke that has been attached to the medlar for centuries. French school children and country peasants have been cracking this joke for a long time and it does indeed look very much like a dog’s bottom, or even a cat’s arse, but the similarity is visual only and goes no further than that.
Jane Grigson in “Fruit Book”, describes eating medlars bought from the fruit department of Fauchon in Paris. She says they are “exactly right, not too soft, though perhaps the taste lacked the pleasant sharpness of ours in Wiltshire”. It sounds as though the medlars she tried in Paris had a similar taste to mine here in the Pays de la Loire. Tartness and sharpness are not at all how I would describe my medlars, or the jelly I make, and perhaps the further south you go the medlar taste softens and loses it’s tart quality.
Tastes are impossible to describe without using other familiar tastes to guide you, and taste is very personal, but I shall try. I would describe my medlar jelly as tasting like caramelised apples, like the apples in Tarte Tatin, with a rich flavour, not unlike dates, thrown in and then an aromatic, almost rose-water after taste, that is very subtle. It’s a beautiful taste which I love on it’s own though it goes really well with cheese, lamb, venison, pheasant, and of course, porridge.
I have to reference the wonderful Jane Grigson again for this, and she is quoting a French author, Dr. Henri Leclerc when she explains that the medlar was thought to help keep you regular and prevent diarrhoea. A chemical analysis carried out in 1939 shows medlars to be high in fibre, pectins, tannins and having a binding effect on your stomach. Bet it’s got loads of bio-flavanoids. Very useful! It could be the next superfood!
THE BLETTING OR THE ROTTING
Weird isn’t it, that you have to wait until the fruit has effectively become completely spoiled before you can eat it. Basically, the longer you wait, more of the starch turns to sugar. The taste of your medlar jelly will deepen into the rich smooth taste it ought to be. I have made medlar jelly from large lumps of almost fermented fruit and wondered at the start of the process if I had waited too long, that perhaps the fruit had finally rotted beyond it’s useful life. So far, no medlar in my experience can be too rotted! The only thing that will never work is trying to use medlars that have shrivelled up and dried out.
MY MEDLAR JELLY RECIPE
1 and a half kilos of medlars (bletted or well rotted)
1 litre of water (about enough to cover the fruit)
650g approx Sugar with Pectin added (but this will depend on final quantity of juice you get).
Cut the medlars in half, this should be fairly easy to do as they will be very soft and squash apart as you cut them.
Put them in a large, deep pot with a nice thick, heat-conducting base. Pour about a litre of water into the pot with the medlars, you might need more, as the water should cover the medlars.
When in France, I use local source mineral water from St. Leonard des Bois, it’s free and it has a fabuous pure, clean taste. If you’re feeling extravagant you could buy a good French mineral water like Evian or Volvic and use that but when in London I use good old London water and the taste is fine.
Cut two lemons in half, extract the juice, put that, and the remainders of the lemon into the pot with the medlars. Give it a quick stir to mix everything together. Bring to the boil, and then turn the heat down and cover with a lid and simmer for about 40 to 60 minutes. I then turn the whole thing off and let it sit for about 30 minutes to slightly cool, this just makes the juice less dangerous to handle and allows the juice to rest and meld, but if you are stuck for time you could strain right away.
The best way to strain the juice out of the pulp is through a jelly bag, or muslin, that has been scalded with boiling water to sterlise it. However, in extremis, I have used all sorts of other things, a sieve or collander lined with a thin cotton tea towel or cut up old sheet etc. The material just needs to be thin enough and scalded to make it sterile.
You will need to leave the juice to drip through overnight. Sorry, no way round that really, and yes, if you poke and prod the pulp, to quicken the process, it will make your juice cloudy; having said that, a bit of careful pushing and prodding doesn’t harm the juice that much if you are prepared to strain the juice again. One advantage of the cotton tea towel/sheet equipment is that the denser weave of the material strains the juice more thoroughly, though it might take longer to seep through.
Now often, the next day, I don’t have time to actually make the jelly with the resulting juice. What I do is store the juice in the fridge in a clip-top bottle (easily bought in most garden centres and supermarkets in France, but harder to come by in the UK). You need to sterlise the bottle and clip stopper before putting the juice in. I find boiling a kettle and then pouring the water into the bottle and over the stopper, works fine. Seal the bottle and store in the fridge until you are ready to create medlar jelly. It should keep ok, if unopened, for about two weeks.
Medlars are low in pectin and low in acid. You will have cooked up the fruit with lemons so that will add enough acid to the process. Pectin is a bigger problem, as this is essentially what will make the liquid turn to jelly. I use sugar with pectin added, no apology for that I’m afraid, it works. One of the things about other recipes is they often suggest you add apples or pears, presumably to boost up the pectin content, but I think this changes the taste. Some will argue that using commercially produced pectin will do that too but I would say that the very full and rich taste of my medlars punches through. If you are using medlars that are not fully ripe, the taste of the pectin (which is really slight) will not be masked, you’ll probably get a taste that is more tart too.
Take the juice, either from the bottles or the pan, and strain again through another sieve lined with a tea towel or use a jelly bag. It should take a lot less time to drain through, in fact it strains through instantly. This is a good way of making sure that any bits are kept out of the resulting liquid. I find that if I’ve stored the juice in bottles in the fridge that the bits have sunk to the bottom of the bottle anyway.
Measure the quantity of juice that you have made and add 650g of preserving sugar to every litre of juice.
Heat the juice until you start to get swirls of steam and then add the sugar. Stir the sugar in carefully on a simmering heat until it dissolves. Once it has dissolved fully, turn up the heat and boil. You will need to achieve a continuous, rolling boil with plenty of steam rising. This is one of my favourite moments because once you add the sugar to the liquid, and as it heats up, the juice will turn into it’s characteristically autumnal colour of amber. To put a poetic spin on it, the liquid is like the quintessence of evening autumn sunshine. I spend quite a bit of time at this stage peering at the magical change of colour.
But really, you are embarking here on the tricky bit that terrifies most people. You are attempting to achieve the setting point. Again, you need to be patient. While you wait for the juice to boil away, you can get busy sterlising the jars and lids you will need to store your jelly. If you get about a litre of juice you should need about 4 x 350ml jam jars. I always sterlise more jars than I need, in case I end up with more juice. So, sterlise 5 jars and you’ll be safe. I boil my jars and lids in another larger pot. You can also sterlise them in the oven by heating them up, though watch they don’t shatter.
How long will the medlar juice need to boil? Not sure really, about 30 minutes, maybe 40. You want to see a drop in level of the liquid in the pot before you start testing to see if it’s forming into jelly. I use the saucer method, which is a saucer taken out of the freezer, so it’s very cold, drop some liquid onto it and see if you get any wrinkles on the drop after about 30 seconds. If not continue to boil. You need to be right there checking regularly, don’t wander off and do something else.
I find that as you go through this process of testing for the setting point you will begin to notice that the juice on the spoon is solidifying more and more. If you get a stiffness and wrinkles, in your drop in the saucer, it’s ready.
The jars should be hot as you pour the liquid jelly into them. As you fill each jar, fix the lid on straight away. The jelly will still look a bit too liquid even after you have sealed the jar, but as it, and the jar, cools it should begin to solidify.
IF YOU HAVE STOPPED BOILING TOO SOON. Don’t panic, it is not a disaster. I’ve done this several times. I’ve added my jelly to hot jars, sealed with lids, waited and found that the jelly when cooled, has not solidified but remained liquid. Just open up all the jars, empty the contents into the pot again, boil and search once more for the setting point. You will need to clean and sterlise your jars a second time. Usually, this decanting and re-boiling process results in jelly at last. Un-jellied jelly, simply means that you haven’t boiled off enough of the water for the setting point to be achieved.
Yes, this is a lengthy process but it’s alchemy you can eat. It’s an activity full of moments of almost Zen-like experiences and it creates something very special and unique.
Our medlars will be ready to use in perhaps another week or two. This year should be a bumper crop of very large medlars all currently being kissed by the late summer sun.
If you are interested in buying fresh medlars for cooking, we are able to sell a limited amount at £5 a kilo + postage. Get in touch if you are interested: firstname.lastname@example.org