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Anyone who has ever walked in the Historic Area knows the wonderful job done by our gardeners and groundskeepers in creating and maintaining our vibrant and well-manicured grounds. But you may not know that there are a multitude of historically accurate fruit trees and plants right alongside the tulips and the manicured hedges. Sometimes even we come across a hidden treasure that Historic Foodways staff did not know was there. That is exactly what happened last fall when we stumbled across a medlar tree in full bloom.
A medlar, or mespilus germanica, comes in both tree and bush form. Both the tree and the fruit are referred to by the same name. This ancient fruit has been grown and cultivated since Roman times, but began to fall out of favor as early as the late 17th century. One of the reasons may stem from the fact that the medlar, a winter fruit, should not be harvested until the first frost, and one cannot eat it until it has bletted, or rotted. That sounds worse than it actually is. The fruit, which looks very similar to a rose hip, is rock hard when picked. Bletting simply means to keep the fruit until it starts to turn soft, thus the reference to rotting.
After the first frost staff picked all the medlar from the tree, which yielded about 50 small apricot-sized fruits. This sometimes required standing on tiptoes or giving the branch a good shake. We placed the fruits we picked in a large bowl, uncovered, and allowed the bletting to commence. It took much longer than expected, approximately six weeks, which made us reevaluate just how hard the frost needs to be before picking the fruit next winter.
When the fruit was bletted, it was cut into quarters, leaving the peel and pips intact, and cooked in a copper conserving pan until it produced a concoction that looked like applesauce. Once it was cool enough to handle, the fruit was poured through linen jelly bag and allowed to drip for several hours. Recipes instruct you not to squeeze the contents of the bag, or your jelly will turn cloudy. After the fruit yielded all its juice, we added sugar and slowly boiled down the lot in the conserving pan until the jelly pulled away from the sides of the pan, and held its shape for several seconds before spreading.
So how did the medlar jelly taste? Different than we anticipated. Most of us thought it tasted like applesauce and honey mixed together, though there were hints of raisin or currant flavors as well. The consistency also was much honey-like than a jelly, but that may have been the result of the amount of sugar. Everyone was pleased with the results, though, and we will welcome medlar jelly into our cooking repertoire here in at Historic Foodways.