Wednesday 22 November 2017

So sweet on the marvellous medlar

Rare: The unusual medlar
Rare: The unusual medlar

Joe Kennedy

The poet, the late Dennis O'Driscoll, has written about summer fruits in a joyful, celebratory way.

Of course, summer's long gone but many fruits of its attractiveness are still before us, much of it produce from around the globe.

O'Driscoll is lyrical on the ephemeral life-cycle of a ripe raspberry and the "downy yielding roundness" of peaches with their "lightly clothed contours". He urges that we should taste their sweetness before they begin to shrink and shrivel as they have and are, depending where one finds oneself.

I have fruits laid out like soldiers on a ledge, survivors of Halloween, though the man who sold them to me said: "No more - finished now." He threw an almost flawless one into the bag for free. The joys of pears and apples, still plentiful, are chronicled in O'Driscoll's New and Selected Poems - but one unusual fruit, the medlar, is missing. Perhaps this is because it is rare and unattractive. This is not surprising for medlars, dun-covered lumps on a spiky bush (mespilus germanica), are only edible when almost rotten.

They are continentals but may be found in Ireland. I have seen them in Cork and Dublin, in environmental landscaping; the bush is the attraction.

No less a food writer than Jane Grigson has had a tale to tell about these odd, unpleasant-looking delicacies, much like quinces or mulberries. They are natives of south-eastern Europe and south-western Asia and, as with other horticultural rarities, were encouraged by Victorian gardeners during a period of enthusiasm for the exotic.

But time has greatly passed them by and their table presence has been dumped into the peelings bin of history's kitchens. This fruit was once highly regarded for its medicinal properties, as a binding agent and protection against bleeding. It was recommended by French doctors as a "perfect regulator" for the stomach.

As the fruit ripens to just under rottenness it becomes most edible. The naturalist Richard Mabey, who wrote Food for Free a lifetime ago, says the flesh tastes like baked apple and, in the south of France is eaten out of its skin, like a cooker.

It is good for jellies, preserves and pies. And where else but Paris could this curious fruit be the butt of ribald jokes occasioned by its shape as a cul-de-chien by fruit market porters?

In Italy there is a family custom called "ventura" when, on St Martin's Eve (it falls this coming week), the household gathers to sample the season's new wines. A basket of medlars, with coins pressed into them, is set aside for the children.

More typical now for nibbles are sweet chestnuts (castanea sativa), for me here in Portugal, where I reside at the moment, offered in paper cones by a street vendor from his cycle-powered mobile cooker!

This is an historic fruit from the northern provinces and Galicia, a testimony to the Romans who planted them 2,000 years ago as food for the legions. They may be found in England - one tree is 1,000 years old - but not in Hibernia's "wintry land" which Caesar found unattractive.

Sunday Independent

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