Sea­son of strange fruit and sur­pris­ing de­lights

Western Daily Press (Saturday) - - Countryside -

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

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