Season of strange fruit and surprising delights
Martin Hesp recalls a meeting with champion jelly maker Guy Crowden, extolling the virtues of the much-overlooked medlar
SWEETNESS can be derived from even the strangest looking fruit gleaned from the November hedgerows. Even the ugliest fruit of them all can provide deliciousness from the semi-rotted flesh under its wrinkled skin.
Medlars are mysterious because they look and feel totally inedible, and yet they really are fantastic to eat – if prepared in the right way.
And that is part of their magic – because the dull brown flesh creates one of the most beautiful pink-red products you’ll ever see in a jar.
Medlar jelly is many a British gourmet’s Holy Grail. Some have to buy the raw item from good oldfashioned greengrocers – others await the autumn gales which will bring down the medlars they’ve been unable to reach.
And soon a resultant glimmering, clear, roseate jelly will be adorning some savoury cut of game or other red meat, like a ruby jewel perched on the edge of a crown.
Such jellies can be works of culinary art. Making a delicious preserve from hedgerow fruit is alchemy of beauty-and-the-beast proportions. Medlars are such ugly things to look at – they appear so entirely unpalatable – that very few folk nowadays dream of harvesting them in a bid to create nectar.
Much the same goes for crab- apples, which are another West Country hedgerow fruit that can be transformed into the most fabulous of preserves.
But wild fruit jelly-making is an art-form that may have something to do with a person’s age. You are more likely to find tamarind paste in a modern English kitchen than preserves made of fruits like medlar and crab-apple – not to mention rowan berries and other long-lost heroes of our hills and dales. But such delights were commonplace back in Victorian times.
Dishes back then often called for a juxtaposition between savoury and sweet – even better if the sweet element had just a touch of fragrance and the tiniest hint of sour. Back when some older Western Daily Press readers were children, the shelves of a well-stocked pantry would still have been stacked with such delicacies.
“Temperature, and observation, that’s what you need,” I was once told by the late Guy Crowden (father of well-known Somerset poet James) who, in his retirement, became a champion jelly-maker.
Guy told me about the main secret for success when it comes to medlars. It’s something known as “bletting” – a rapid ageing process that is carried out naturally by the first frosts. Basically, this means allowing their rock hard interior to decompose slightly until the flesh has become a rather unpleasant-looking – but sweet-smelling – brown paste.
“The flesh colour deepens to a dark brown,” said Guy. “I treat each one individually and divide it down the middle into about six pieces or even eight pieces. Then I scoop out the flesh and it all goes in the pan with lemon juice, grated lemon peel, cloves, juniper berries and sprigs of rosemary.
“Then I add some water and boil the whole lot up until everything is soft – then you leave it overnight to strain through a jelly bag,” he said, showing me one of those commercial persevering preserving sieves that is held above a collecting receptacle on it’s own three legs.
“It’s the juice that’s strained off which you mix with your sugar in a ratio of one pound of preserving sugar to one pint of fluid – and that gets warmed through to the mystic temperature of 222°F.
“That’s very important,” said Guy. “222 degrees Fahrenheit… Once it reaches that you can check by putting some on a cold plate – if that it wrinkles when you push it with a spoon you are in business. So get it to a rolling boil – that’s a good expression – and stir to get proper circulation in the pan so it’s universally at the right for an even temperature.
“Then I take it off the heat and let it cool down a bit to get rid of any froth or bubbles before I transfer it to heated jam jars,” he added. “Make sure you twist the jar round so any bubbles that are included come to the top.”
Guy, a former Navy captain, was most particular when it came to the appearance of his jellies: “Each time I make it, the details all go down in my little black book,” he said, waving a notebook at me. “Why make notes? If only to show the good ladies of the Women’s Institute that we keep permanent good quality records here – like every captain should…”
“Preserves are very much appreciated at any time of the year – but the medlar jelly is special at Christmas time because it goes so well with cold turkey.
“It also goes with cheese,” added Guy, who died in 2012. “Cheese, medlar jelly and a glass of port – those things compliment one another in so many ways.”
It seems only polite to follow his example and raise a glass in his honour this winter – if only I can find some medlars.
Medlars are mysterious because they look and feel totally inedible, and yet they really are fantastic to eat – if prepared in the right way