Leave the house during daylight hours at the moment and everywhere there is a hectic flurry of birds. The air filled with the flapping of wings and the chattering of warning calls. The robins and wrens that are slowly pecking their way through the stacked trays of apples we keep under cover in the outside kitchen. The hordes of blackbirds and mistle thrushes combing the turf beneath the crab apples. The jackdaws, crows, pigeons and jays feasting on the remaining cooking apples rotting where they fell in the orchard. While, at the entrance to the garden, dunnocks, tits, wrens and finches compete with mice and voles for the last of the medlars that are still falling to ground. The medlars don’t start start dropping until the leaves have all fallen, which this year was in mid-November. Then the race is on to harvest what we need before the critters get them, although we always leave enough that they can eat their fill.
Similar to quince, both in the timing of their harvest and in the fact that they are also too hard and astringent to be eaten raw, while quince can be cooked straight off the tree, medlars must be bletted to become edible. Bletting is the process of allowing the fruit to start the process of decomposition, so that the hard white flesh becomes a soft, cinnamon brown paste. This happens naturally when there is a frost or prolonged cold weather, and we are lucky to have the space to leave ours outside under cover in perforated plastic trays. However, this process can be replicated and hastened by putting the medlars in bags in the freezer.
In texture, smell and flavour the flesh of a bletted medlar is reminiscent of a soft Medjool date. Raw, it doesn’t have that fruit’s sweet richness, but something of the sour, citrus tang of tamarind mixed with the tannin astringency of black tea. Sweetened and cooked, however, it is transformed into something else entirely. A flavour which mixes dried fruits and quince with a tangy earthiness all its own.
Hard to come by unless you have a tree of your own or an obliging friend, neighbour or relative, medlars are appearing with more regularity at farmer’s markets and are worth seeking out for their particular qualities. A late season fruit with a mediaeval association, they pair well with the herbs of the season – bay, rosemary, juniper, thyme. Flavoured with one of these, medlar jelly, the most familiar of medlar products, is a delicious accompaniment to game, cold meats and cheeses and enriches the gravy of a venison or pheasant casserole. Think of using it as you might redcurrant, quince or rowan jelly. Like quince, once cooked an alchemical change turns the murky juice to a clear, rich garnet.
No doubt due to their scarcity medlar recipes are thin on the ground but, as their virtues become more widely appreciated, I expect we will find more ways to eat them. This steamed pudding is an adaptation of a traditional steamed date pudding, and if you can’t get medlars substitute the same weight of dates and liquidise with the eggs before adding to the mixture. Although I’ve not yet tried it I think it would also work well replacing the medlar pulp with the same weight of pureed apple or apple butter, in which case I’d make a caramel sauce to pour over it after steaming. Lighter than a fruit-laden Christmas pudding, yet still festively spiced, this is the pudding that will be gracing our dinner table this Christmas Day.
You need around 400g of well bletted fruit to produce 200g of pulp. Remove the thin, papery skin with your fingers or a small paring knife. Fish out the four large stones within. Press the flesh through a sieve with a metal spoon.
To make about 1kg of medlar jelly put 2kg of whole medlars in a large pan and just cover with water. An equal mix of bletted, partially bletted and unbletted fruit is best as the latter two contain more pectin. Add your chosen herb or spice, bring to the boil and simmer until soft. Strain the pulp through a jelly bag overnight. Measure the resulting juice and put into a preserving pan with 375g granulated sugar to every 500ml. Bring to the boil and boil rapidly for 15 minutes until setting point (104°C) is reached. Pour into sterilised jars and seal.
150g salted butter, softened
100g medlar jelly
50g soft brown or light muscovado sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
Finely grated zest of one lemon
200g medlar pulp
175g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons dried ground ginger
½ teaspoon mace
50g salted butter
100g medlar jelly
Put a large pan of water on a medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer. I steam my pudding in a large pasta pan with a drainer insert. If you don’t have such a thing then place the pudding basin directly in the hot water on an upturned saucer, ensuring that the water comes no further than a third of the way up.
Lightly butter a 1 litre pudding basin. Put the sauce ingredients into a small pan over a low heat until the butter has melted and the jelly has dissolved. Raise the heat and boil for a minute or two until well emulsified and glossy. Allow to cool then pour into the bottom of the pudding basin. The butter may separate out, but worry not.
To make the sponge, cream together the butter, sugar, medlar jelly and vanilla essence until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs a little at a time, incorporating fully after each addition. If the mixture curdles stir in a tablespoon of flour before continuing with the egg. Add the medlar pulp and incorporate well. Sift the flour and baking powder into the mixture. Add the ground ginger, mace and lemon zest. Stir well, but do not overmix.
Spoon the pudding mixture into the bowl, gently smoothing it after every few spoonfuls. Cut a piece of greaseproof paper to fit the top of the basin, butter it and lay it in place. Make a cover from a piece of tin foil large enough to be tied around the top of the basin and with a pleat in the middle to allow the sponge room to rise. Secure with butcher’s string, making a handle to go across the top of the basin for ease of removal.
Put the basin into the pan and cook for 2 hours.
Once cooked carefully remove the basin from the pan using oven gloves. Leave to stand for 15 minutes to settle, then remove the string, foil and greaseproof paper. Put the serving plate upside down on top of the basin and then invert the whole lot, using gloves again to hold the basin. Remove the basin, scraping any remaining sauce out onto the pudding. Serve ideally with a jug of thin homemade vanilla custard, but cold pouring cream or vanilla ice cream will both do good service.
Recipe and photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 17 December 2022