It's been a while since I've done a food-related post but this year for the first time, I had the dubious pleasure of dealing with what was a) a fruit I knew practically nothing about and b) the inevitable immense harvest.

If the title wasn't obvious, I'm talking about the ancient, obscure, unusual and astoundingly delicious medlar fruit.

To condense what is a long-winded tale that I recounted about seven dozen times to curious people at the local markets (while trying to sell a portion of what turned out to be about a 45kg harvest off one tree); originally from the Turkish-Mediterranean region, it became popular in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (particularly as it ripens in early winter), now relatively obscure - largely because it has a very unusual ripening habit and becomes practically untransportable when ripe. Also Shakespeare and Chaucer referenced it because any excuse for a bum joke amirite?

My own experience with medlars is relatively short. The tree was in fruit when I inspected the house in May last year and piqued my interest mainly because I didn't know what it was. By the time I moved in, the fruit had either almost all been picked by the outgoing owners, or rotted away. I ate a couple along the way but for the most part, I didn't pay it very much attention over the next few months as I wasn't really sure what to expect, and it seemed happy enough where it was (probably even happier after I spent the better part of every weekend for two months slowly removing the huge pile of dirt, rocks and bags of asbestos (?!) that had been left piled under the tree in one great mound).

As a plant, it's quite a lovely garden addition. With its broad deep-green leaves and large white spring flowers, it stands a little apart from all of the other fruit trees. Also, medlar trees put on an absolutely stunning autumn display - fit for a New England fall. Brilliant yellows, oranges and reds catch the morning sun and made me late for work on more than a couple of occasions as I stood around admiring it.

Harvesting and ripening is a lot more involved than for other fruit, and has likely contributed to their disappearance from European plates. In May, golfball sized fruit start plopping to the ground, from where they must be dutifully collected once every day or two and stored (preferably on a bed of straw or sawdust) somewhere cool and dry so they can happily wither and ripen into their squishy edible state. This is called 'bletting' but aside from the time and space consuming aspect to it, it's relatively simple and the fruit doesn't ripen too fast. Also, as they usually haven't started ripening (much) when they fall, you won't lose too many to birds if you make the effort to collect them every day.

The final step turned out to be the most puzzling - what to do with them? (especially 40+ kilos of them). Aside from eating them as-is, there aren't too many suggestions on the net, again presumably due to their obscurity and the general lack of Jamie Oliver style cookbooks from the 16th century. Aside from jams, jelly or fruit cheese (none of which I felt inclined to make en masse) there didn't seem to be many suggestions. In the end I just told myself to stop overthinking it - it's fruit, not rocket science - and came up with a couple of my own ideas.

A note on preparing medlars before I get into recipes. There's no way around the fact that you're going to get sticky fingers. Medlars have a papery skin that needs to be removed and several large seeds inside. A lot of people recommend using a nut milk bag to squeeze the flesh out but I used the following method (mostly because I don't own a nut milk bag):
It's not easy to make this look pretty, but you get the idea...

Peel off the skin and take out the seeds - put the seeds in a pot as you go and the de-seeded pulp in a bowl. Once you're done, add some water to the de-pulped seeds and boil them for about 10-15 minutes. This will remove most of the remaining pulp from the seeds and you can pour the entire mix through a colander into the bowl with your fruit pulp (I usually did this to the seeds twice). Then discard the seeds, and use the fruit pulp to make whatever you feel inspired to try!

Ripe medlars are practically like a stewed fruit anyway so this isn't much of a stretch.
Boil your medlar puree with a small amount of sugar to taste (you won't need much as they're very sweet) - add a large cinnamon stick and some vanilla bean powder and boil for about 15 minutes on a low heat. Add water if needed (it should be about as thick as jam) and keep stirring. I like to leave it in the pot to macerate with the cinnamon stick overnight, then reheat again the next day and bottle as you would do with jam (into hot, sterilised jars and seal). You can also add a little brandy to this recipe for variation.

Medlars have the consistency of wet dates, and hints of a similar flavour too, so I had a brain-wave and decided to do a twist on my usual date-based bliss balls and used unsweetened medlar pulp instead. Follow your preferred recipe and just replace dates with medlars. I froze several batches of pulp so that I could make these throughout the year.

Undoubtedly the easiest recipe. Take whole, washed, ripe medlars, poke a few holes in the surface and pack into a flip-top jar with a seal. Half fill with bottom-shelf brandy, and top up with sugar syrup. Seal and leave at least 6 months.

Some of the finished products!
A couple of post-scripts
In the end I sold about 25kg of my harvest via market stalls, gave away about another 5kg and somehow managed to deal with the rest! Next year I'll be more prepared and might even have devised a few more recipes by then so stay tuned!

Oh yeah  - and what do they taste like?
Most common comparisons are caramely stewed apples, dates, apricots and/or figs.

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