Reviving the Medlar, Our Forgotten Fruit

Since 2016, I’ve been (as far as I know) the only specialist grower and producer of handmade medlar preserves in the UK. I’m reviving this ancient and forgotten fruit from our home in Eastgate, Norfolk. My husband David and I have planted a culinary and horticultural orchard of 110 Mespilus germanica trees on our six-acre plot. 

When we bought our Eastgate home in 2012, we became custodians of a beautiful six-acre plot with a mix of formal garden and several paddocks. We were excited. I was a little daunted, having previously been responsible for a garden measured out in feet and inches. We’d brought a medlar tree in a very large pot with us. It had been a wedding present in 2010, an eventual addition to the future garden we were going to make together.

This is also a story about Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital’s bowel cancer screening programme for 55 year olds. My diagnosis in early 2015 revealed a stage 1 cancer. It was quickly and successfully treated. The therapeutic power of our land and my kitchen - digging, planting, growing and becoming a small-scale maker - were essential to my emotional recovery. Norfolk had saved my life. I wanted to show my deep appreciation, and so the orchard and the business were born. By January 2017 we had completed the final phase of planting our  medlar orchard.  Only then did we discover that a hundred years ago this place was a fruit farm with apples and pears underplanted with blackcurrants. We have a dozen of the original Bramleys and we’ve had a bumper 2018 harvest.

We’ve planted a mix of very young bare root and slightly older container grown medlar trees. 101 of these are Nottinghams, the best variety for flavour and size. A six-foot bareroot seedling Mespilus germanica Nottingham on quince ‘A’ rootstock will fruit in its third year. Planted in a spacious hole, with bone meal, plenty of leaf mould, a stout stake and a bucket of water topped off with a mulch mat, all 110 trees will be productive this year. Medlars are relatively disease free, prefer a slightly acid soil with good drainage in a sunny spot. They love a really cold winter and cope well with long hot summers. Their yellow centred single white blossoms appear in late May and are magnets for honey bees. They are self-fertile and will fruit successfully as singletons.

There’s little evidence and a lot of uncertainty surrounding the origins of the medlar. The trees may have grown first on the western shores of the Caspian around 1000 C.E., spreading from Greece via the Roman Empire throughout Northern Europe. Stones were found in burial sites in France and Switzerland and ancient leaf impressions surfaced at Burgtonna in Germany. Carl Linnaeus’ book Species plantarum (1753) provides us with the modern binomial name for the medlar, Mespilus germanica, apparently in the belief that it was native to Germany. Maybe an apt name after all.    

It’s hard to say when medlars first arrived here. The Roman town at Silchester, Hampshire revealed medlar stones during an archaeological dig in 1903/4. These remain the only recorded finds of medlars from Roman Britain, and the fruit may have been an exotic import.  Not until the 13th Century are there clear documentary records of medlar cultivation in England: Westminster Abbey’s gardens were run by Monk Gardeners, responsible for supplying the Abbey with produce which included medlars, cherries, plums, pears and nuts.        

We know that Henry VIII helped make medlars fashionable among the nobility. Medlar, pear, damson, cherry and apple trees were planted at Hampton Court. In October 1532, Henry took Anne Boleyn to France, where he met King Francis I. Among the sumptuous gifts of swans, geese, capons, ducks and larks were large quantities of medlars.

Sir Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, created a garden at Hatfield House early in the 17th Century. He had already obtained medlar, quince, walnut and cherry trees from a Low Countries grower named Henrich Marchfeld. He sent his gardener, John Tradescant, back to buy more stock, including “two great medlar trees” for 4s 0d and “two great medlar trees of naples” for 5s 0d.

The medlar was widely grown and eaten in 19th century Britain. Its ubiquity and popularity declined steeply after WW1, a time of changing habits and tastes. It’s possible that preparing medlars to eat just took too long.

The fruit is usually ready to harvest in late October or early November after night time temperatures have dipped. They’re inedible as a fresh fruit or cooked until they’ve been bletted (ripened) on trays in controlled, cool conditions. Off the tree, while ripe to pick, they are hard and astringent.

Bletting liberates the fruit’s fragrance and flavour; the medlar becomes soft and juicy. It may take weeks - medlars won’t be rushed – but in time they’re ready to make into delicious preserves. I work with small batches of medlars, British sugar and whole lemon. I don’t use gelling agent or liquid pectin; all my preserves are suitable for vegans and vegetarians. They are gluten free.

Medlar blossom.JPG

At the time of writing, it’s harvest. I’m connected to a lovely network of medlar trees around North Norfolk. The fruit is offered on the basis that it otherwise goes to waste, many gardeners loving the ornamental blossom and the autumn colour of their own medlar tree. Eastgate Larder donates to their chosen charity, recognising the value to me of this overlooked and forgotten fruit. I blend my Eastgate fruit into every batch I make.

The clear amber medlar jelly is delicious with cheese, meat, game and charcuterie. Medlar fruit cheese, a set purée of the pulp, is simmered gently for several hours and pairs well with blue and hard cheeses. My newest product is a spicy medlar chutney, delicious with a curry or in a cheese sandwich. Bon appetit!

Jane Steward is a specialist grower and producer of medlar preserves. Find her at Eastgate Larder, or on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.