Mary meets a Norfolk grower reviving an historic fruit
The revival of the marvellous medlar
THIS month my culinary journey has taken me to Eastgate, near Cawston. Having just ordered a medlar tree for our garden, I wanted to learn more about this ancient fruit and who better to talk to than Jane Steward, founder of Eastgate Larder. Jane is the maker of the most beautiful, jewel-like medlar jellies and fruit cheese, which can be served with meat, pies, patés and cheese.
Over the years this fascinating, peculiar-looking fruit has been given several humorous descriptive names, though not always complimentary, with the French calling it the ‘cul de chien’, or dog’s bottom! They have appeared through centuries of our food history, but medlars are not native to Britain.
It is thought that they originally came from the Caspian region; they were eaten by the Romans and were mentioned in records throughout the 13th century. During medieval times they were grown in orchards providing winter fruit and nourishment, and were also appreciated for their medicinal qualities, especially for digestion disorders.
You will find medlars mentioned in the writings of Chaucer, Shakespeare and D H Lawrence. The fruit fell out of favour with the Edwardians as they were introduced to more fashionable treats for the fruit bowl.
Although they did plant the trees, they were grown mostly as ornamental ones. You will find a medlar tree in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral.
Since moving to Norfolk Jane has become a committed grower of fruit and vegetables. Her beautiful garden is set out in small orchards, with many areas dedicated to medlar trees. Jane and her husband David recently learnt that their garden was a fruit farm 100 years ago; this seems incredibly appropriate as they are creating a national collection of old medlar varieties, continuing a wonderful legacy of knowledge and history.
For Jane’s jelly and fruit cheese production they have planted 101 Nottingham medlar trees, grafted onto quince rootstock. This variety offers the best combination of size and flavour; they are easy to grow and are self-fertile.
In the spring the blossom starts as white buds, spreading into beautiful large flowers, offering landing pads for honeybees, which love them. Then in the autumn the leaves turn a deep, brilliant red, which fall to reveal the greenish brown fruit, displaying the reason for their ancient French name!
The fruit are harvested in early November. Picked while still pale green, the fruit are then laid on trays to ripen and mellow in a cool place; this stage is called bletting.
Jane has spent time experimenting, refining and developing her recipes, and is selling her products across East Anglia and London. She gathers the fruit from the trees in her orchard, but in addition to this, Jane also picks medlars from other sources across Norfolk. She will barter for the value of the fruit, and will happily settle on a charity donation, sponsorship of a local project or some jars of medlar jelly.
I look forward to being on the list of her fruit growers.
There is more about Eastgate Larder at eastgatelarder.co.uk If you have a fruiting medlar tree Jane would be delighted to hear from you too.
Above: Jane Steward and some of her produce
Below: the fruit after bletting