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My cherimoya, shortly before it became smoothie fodder.

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May 1, 2005

Sure, it tastes lousy now, but try it when it's a little rotten!

Sometimes it's pretty obvious why certain fruits fail to catch on. Take the medlar, for example. A tree fruit which shares a family (Rosaceae) with such mainstays of American fruit consumption as apples and pears, and native to the eastern Mediterranean, it seems as though it would have been quickly adopted in Europe and shipped along to the New World with all the various other things, good and bad, to become part of our culture heritage here.

Medlars, however, are not exactly wildly popular in Europe, and most folks in the United States have never heard of them. That's because of their one big catch: they're basically inedible fresh. Off the tree even when dead ripe, they are hard, green, and extremely astringent. There are other fruits with this issue, and in most cases the problem is solved by simply making them into jellies or preserves, but even that (alone, anyway) does not work for the medlar. The solution to this is "bletting": ripe medlars are taken from the tree and spread on some rather absorptive material (like straw, sawdust, or bran) somewhere rather cool, and allowed to decay for several weeks. Ideally, they're harvested from the tree immediately following a hard frost, which jumpstarts the bletting process by breaking down cell walls and speeding decay. Once the process is complete, the flesh will have broken down to the point where it can be spooned out of the skin. The sticky mush substance tastes a bit like something somewhere in between dates and a weird, dry applesauce, with maybe a hint of cinnamon. I'm told its an acquired taste, but I've yet to acquire it (not that I've tried very hard to). I've been warned that there is a fine line to be observed here, and that letting medlars blet too long is a good recipe for an upset stomach.

As is the case with so many things these days, most folks don't really want to be bothered with that anymore. The medlar enjoyed a run of popularity during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, particularly in Tudor England, and Charlemagne specifically ordered them to be planted on his royal (imperial?) estates. Part of their charm in those days was that because they were harvested late in the season and then allowed to blet for many weeks, medlars were some of the very few sweet things available to eat in Europe during the winter. They enjoyed another run of popularity in the Victorian era as desserts, but with the advent of controlled atmosphere storage and worldwide food distribution, that particular reason to eat medlars is essentially gone unless you're a hardcore homesteader or live somewhere without a supermarket. They maintain a small niche today among gourmets, and in French cooking (which appears to have found a place for pretty much every edible substance on the face of the planet.)

Botanically, medlars are interesting in that unlike other related fruit, the seeds are born in open chambers on the calyx end of the fruit, a fact which prompted Chaucer and other writers of his era to refer to it as "the open-arse-fruit", and the French to nickname it "cul de chien", meaning "dog's asshole" (Other off-color medlar metaphors are no doubt the reason for the medlar reference in Romeo and Juliet...I believe there's another one in As You Like It, too). Such names probably don't do much for its popularity, and the fruit are, to my eye anyway, rather unattractive: a heavily russetted green, with a flared open calyx, rather similar to a deformed crabapple.

The tree, however, is more attractive than its fruit, with large, abundant, white flowers which would justify its use as an ornamental if not for the need to dispose of all the resulting medlars somehow (it is self-fertile, so even a single tree will set fruit). I've seen it described as a large shrub, but it always seemed more tree-like to me, especially since it can hit heights of more than thirty feet (though it rarely does, as it is rather slow growing). The leaves are dense, downy, and dark (how alliterative!). Quince or hawthorn are frequently used as rootstocks.

There a handful of medlar cultivars around, some of which are carried by nurseries. 'Macrocarpa' (meaning "big fruit") is among the most common, and is available in the U.S. from Raintree Nursery among other places. Honestly, this is the only cultivar I can recall seeing for sale in the U.S. (Edible Landscaping has a medlar for sale, too, but doesn't list the cultivar). Also popular (if a medlar can be said to be so) is the 'Medlar of Nottingham', commonly known as 'Nottingham', and 'Large Dutch' which are available from a variety of sources in the U.K. and Australia. Keepers Nursery in England has perhaps the largest selection of medlar cultivars I've seen. I'm not sure how international my audience is here, but while I'm on such a track I might as well mention that they're also available at Perry's Fruit & Nut Nursery and Daley's Fruit Tree Nursery in Australia and at Diack's Nurseries in New Zealand.

For quite a while, the European Medlar, Mespilus germanica, was considered to be alone in its genus. All that changed, however, when in 1990 a new species called Stern's Medlar was described in Arkansas. The new species, designated Mespilus canescens, is confined to a single population of about 25 individuals in the Konecny Grove Natural Area (there have been unconfirmed reports of individual trees outside this area). The new species has been suggested to be polyploid and may in fact be of hybrid origin, but the limited amount of material and the rather small field of medlar researchers have so far limited the amount of work done on the subject. Interestingly, although Stern's Medlar is known to have fruited in the past, none have done so for several years, despite prolific flowering.

Note that so-called "Japanese Medlars" are actually Loquats, Eriobotrya japonica, another Rosaceous tree fruit (I've been meaning to do a write-up on these for a while).

I'll end this entry with a question I've had for a long time: can anyone think of anything else one blets besides medlars? Some one once suggested persimmons to me, but I don't know that I've ever heard it used in that context. I find it strangely appealing that a fruit as obscure as medlars has verb dedicated specifically to it.

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At 5/01/2005 06:43:00 PM, Blogger la1itree said...

I looked up blet in the OED, and it says that the term was coined by a fellow named Lindsay, from the French word blettir (to become sleepy) to describe how fruits mature after they are ripe. Or something like that!

Interesting post, I had no idea such things existed, but I must say I'm not all that eager to try one. Sounds like it goes alongside durians into the category of 'fruits whose acquired taste I will just never acquire'.

At 5/01/2005 07:18:00 PM, Blogger Evil Fruit Lord said...

Interesting...the referrence I'd seen (if I recall) had it from an Old French word for 'rotten', I think. At some point maybe I'll do an exhaustive bit of research on the subject. Maybe write the definitive treatise on bletting. Right now I'm attempting to write a merely adequate treatise on QTL mapping in polyploids.

I'm really interested to try durian at some point, as I keep seeing references to them. Any fruit which stinks of onions but is so well loved that people have sold all their possessions to eat them is worth trying. Hell, just the fact that its covered with spikes and weighs half a dozen pounds or more and falls from the tree when ripe is enough to merit an interesting write-up. But part of me feels like if you're writing about something like food, where the experience of it is so much a part of the thing, that I shouldn't write about things I haven't experienced. (That may not be a hard and fast rule here, but so far I'm doing alright, although there are things I've talked about that I haven't tasted in a very, very long time.)

I found a reference to bletting in apples in the Grocer's Encyclopedia, but I'm not sure I buy it, having spent an awful lot of time with apple people and never heard the term used there. However I also found the word "blimbling" just below it, which is a fruit related to the carambola. I've never heard of it, but what a cool name. I swear, every piece I write on here could lead to a dozen more if I had the time and energy (I don't.)

At 5/02/2005 10:57:00 PM, Blogger Sue said...

Mmmm rotten fruit! I can't wait to try it, myself.

At 5/03/2005 08:06:00 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Hm. Reminds me of the butcher who told me that meat tastes better after it's gone brown. I'd like to test these theories, but adjectives like 'rotten' and 'old' just don't attract me to food. :-)

At 11/22/2005 03:51:00 AM, Blogger Megan Lynch said...

Do you think there's any chance they'll ever offer Stern's medlar anywhere? I mean, I understand there are only 25 left but you'd think that'd mean they'd be eager to make sure it got propagated...

Regardless of whether the fruit is much good, it sure is a pretty plant.

At 11/22/2005 03:52:00 PM, Blogger Evil Fruit Lord said...

In the short term, I think it's unlikely we'll see it for sale any time soon. The priority right now is propagating it for research/botanical gardens/etc. I don't know much about Stern's medlar (who does?) but regular medlar doesn't root well from cuttings, and Stern's medlar hasn't set seed in several years, so the only way to propagate it would be grafting, but of course there aren't any methods developed for Stern's Medlar and there isn't tons of material to work with.

That said, you're right...it's a very attractive plant. I think if it can successfully be propagated to the point where its no longer in danger of extinction, it might have a future in cultivation.

At 11/27/2006 11:42:00 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said...

You definitely have to blet persimmons. Otherwise their taste is not fully mature.

Also, the process involves fermentation, not just rotting.

And a fully bletted persimmon is divinely supersweet, not gross like the process makes it sound.

At 11/28/2006 10:58:00 AM, Blogger Evil Fruit Lord said...

Could you provide a reference on this fermentation aspect? Not that I necessarily doubt you (despite the fact I've written a couple of persimmon pieces, I'm hardly an expert...however if you use the word persimmon once online you will forever attract persimmon fans via Google, and I feel like I need to cater to them).

I am a tad dubious how much actual fermentation is going on. My impression was that this was an enzymatic change within the fruit. If fermentation is going on, some organism has got to be there to do it, and that would seem to suggest that flavor would be highly dependent on the strain of yeast or bacteria involved (as it is in wine).

At 3/18/2007 07:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.

According to the Wikipedia entry for 'bletting,' "There are some fruits that are either considered at their best after some bletting, such as Twentieth Century Asian Pears, or that can only be eaten after bletting, such as Medlars, Persimmons and True Service Fruit."

I'm fascinated with Medlars myself, partially because of the exotic factor, their colorful history and because they can be so damn unattractive. I'm grafting 120 trees of them for our orchard next year just to see if a market for this fruit can be generated. Medlar Jelly has been made in the UK and abroad for hundreds of years and I've have seen a number of recipes for Medlar pies and tarts. A creative chef willing to invest some time in developing new recipes for this fascinating fruit would probably help its image considerably.

I'm guessing the fact that many people equate bletted/overripe with rotten/inedible is part of the hurdle that's keeping these fruits from getting their due. It's also not a particularly convenient fruit to eat. Possibly the advent of the Slow Food movement will help change that as well. We allow persimmons and even some pears to be bletted with no stigma. Why should it be any different with the medlar?

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At 9/24/2009 07:26:00 AM, Blogger whitetie said...

Cant wait to try some medlars. We have just moved work premises and there is a large medlar tree in the garden. We are nearing the first frost in the next few weeks and I cant wait to harvest them. How long should they be kept before eating?

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