Forgotten Fruits: The Medlar

By David Thompson, Engagement Manager Australian Institute of Horticulture

Food critics of the 19th Century were just as direct about their feelings toward the Medlar as they would be today, possibly because the Medlar (Mespilus germanica) is largely inedible until it has decayed and ripened properly – yet this fruit has a fascinating history.

 

“Only one degree better than a rotten apple”

 

When scientists uncovered a 2000-year old Roman toilet in what is now Switzerland, they uncovered the well-preserved seeds of an unusual fruit. Covered by the waters of the Rhine River for most of that time, scientists determined that the seeds belonged to a relative of the apple in the Rosaceae family.

Despite its reputation for sourness and the cause of stomach complaints when eaten fresh, the Medlar was a popular fruit through the Medieval period and the Middle Ages, gracing the table of kings and royals.

 

Medlar fruits, a common appearance in artworks. Tapestry from around 1500. Image/ Alamy.

 

The Medlar is mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the two-time queen consort Anne of Brittany’s Book of Hours – a kind of illustrated religious manuscript popular in the Middle Ages. Henry VIII had the Medlar planted at Hampton Court.

 

“The Medlar is not…worth a turd until it’s ripe, and then it tastes like sh…”

 

‘Bletting’ The Fruit Makes It Edible

When freshly-picked, Medlars are tough, bitter and astringent. However, food curators in the Middle Ages found that resting them for several weeks in dry sawdust caused them to soften, where they lost their tannins and became more acidic. The resulting texture was described as being similar to baked apple, with soft, fall-apart flesh with a tangy flavour, or ‘like over-ripe dates mingled with lemons, and a slightly grainy texture’.

In 1839, a botanist coined the term ‘bletting’ to describe this process of ripening to an edible state. The fruit was used in jams, jellies and on its own until the arrival of more flavourful tropical fruits such as pineapples after World War Two, though not before becoming an important part of the Dig For Victory gardening movement.

 

‘Bletting’, the Medlar fruit ripening process. Image/ Nadiatalent via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Productive and Ornamental

Medlars are also statuesque and attractive deciduous trees, ideal landscape features that makes good shade trees in leaf and attractive in flower with white five-star petals. Some trees have lived for centuries, such as one planted in the UK ion 1820 that is still abundantly-productive.

As more people come to know about this unusual fruiting tree, they are coming back into popularity. They make a great talking point and numerous Australian fruit trees suppliers have them on offer.

 

Medlar (Mespilus germanica) Image/ Alamy.

Leave a Reply