The medlar (fruit of Mespilus germanica) is not generally found in your ordinary suburban fruit shop today, and I have neglected it in my own kitchen as well as in this blog. The tree is probably indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula, and has been cultivated for perhaps 3000 years. It was introduced to Europe by the Romans during the expansion of their Empire, and was popular during Medieval times, probably because the fruit was edible during winter when little else in the way of fresh fruit was available. I say ‘fresh’, but the fruit when unripe is hard, acidic, and very bitter due to the presence of tannins, and it becomes edible only when thoroughly “bletted” – which is a posh French way of saying ‘brown and rotten’. I understand that fruit from trees grown in warmer climates may be ripened on the tree, and is then edible before the rotting stage, but this is the exceptional situation rather than the rule. The fruit became less popular as the 17th century progressed – no doubt to the accomplishments of horticulturalists and orchardists who made other fruits increasingly available.
I was reminded of medlars, and my neglect of them as a topic for this blog, when I came across the following recipe recently:
To make a Tart of Medlers.
Take medlers that be rotten, and stamp them, then set them on a chaffing dish and coales, and beat in two yolkes of egges, boyling till it be somewhat thicke, then season them with suger, sinamom and ginger, and lay it in past.The Good Huswife’s Jewel, Thomas Dawson (1587)
In times past, all natural materials, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, had healing properties ascribed to them. According to John Parkinson, in his Theatrum Botanicum: The Theater of Plants : Or, An Herball of Large Extent … , published in 1640, the ‘vertues’ of the medlar were as follows:
Medlars have the like properties that Services* have, but are more effectual in operation to binde and stay any fluxes of blood or humours in man or woman, the leaves also have the same quality, but besides these effects the mellowed fruit is often served amongst other sorts of fruite to the table, and eaten with pleasure by those that have no need of physicke, but worketh in women with childe, both to please the taste as in others, and to stay their longings after unusual meates, &c., as also very effectual for those that are apt to miscarry, and before their time to be delivered, to helpe that malady and make them joyfull mothers; that of Naples is more delicate & is also accounted more effectual for the said purposes: the decoction of them is good to gargle and wash the mouth and throate, and teeth, where there is any defluxion of blood to stay it, and of humours, which causeth paines and swellings, to binde those distillations and ease the paines: the same also is a good bath for women to it in or over that have their courses come down too abundantly, or for the piles when they bleed too much: the same also serveth well both to drinke and to bathe the stomacke warme, that is giving to casting, to loath or not hold and containe their meate and digest it, put if a pultis or plaister be made with dryed Medlars, beaten and mixed with the juyce of Red Roses, whereunto a few Cloves and Nutmeg may be added, and a little red Corall also, and applied to the stomacke it will worke the more effectually: the dryed leaves in pouther strawed on bleeding or fresh wounds, restraineth the blood, and healeth up the wound quickly: both leaves and fruite are of singular good use to binde, and to strengthen whatever hath need of those qualities, The Medlar stones made into pouther and drunke in wine wherein some Parslye rootes have lyen infused all night, or a little boyled, do breake the stone in the kidneys helping to expel them.
[*‘services’ are fruit of Sorbus domestica, also called the sorb tree or whitty pear.]
Medlars may have become less popular after the medieval era, but that is not to say that they were never used at all. A common way of dealing with them is to make jelly:
Take medlars when they are ripe (i. e. when eatable) and put them into a preserving pan with as much water as will cover them; simmer slowly until they become a pulp, then strain through a thin jelly bag, and to every pint of juice add a quarter of a pound lump sugar. Boil for an hour and pour into jars; when cold it will be a stiff jelly. Medlar jelly made from this recipe, in some degree resembles Guava jelly. It makes a very good addition to the winter dessert.
Jennie June's American Cookery Book (1866) by Jane Cunningham Croly