The word ‘medlar’ – and its Italian equivalent nespola – generally provokes only blank stares. Actually, come to think of it, that’s not so true for Italians because nespola is also used to mean loquat (Eriobotrya japonica); as soon as you explain, however, that you don’t mean that exotic import, but our very own European Mespilus germanica, the result is the same. Which is odd, because in both countries (and most in between), the medlar is a common enough hedgerow occupant, its fruit – a kind of prehistoric apple – often mistaken for oak apples.
Along with persimmons, medlars cling to the trees until very late in autumn. In fact, you need a couple of good hard frosts to reduce them to the squishy semi-rotten state that means they’re usable. I used to pick them hard and leave them spread on the floor of the shed until they bletted – which is the proper term for this degree of putrefaction. But then I realised that leaving them on the tree for longer cut out this middle task. Now I wait. The jelly they produce is, I think, my favourite: winey and musty, it’s a grown-up taste that goes with strong cheese just as well as it goes on breakfast toast.
Medlars – a couple of buckets full
Sugar – 50% weight of the volume of juice extracted from the fruit
Medlars are high in pectin, and will gel quite easily without the need for additives. When selecting, try to get about two thirds bletted fruit to one third firm. There’s no real need to prepare your fruit in any way: just remove any leaves or woody stalks that are clinging to the medlars.
Rinse your fruit and put it in the largest pan you have – a heavy-bottomed maslin pan is good. Almost cover the fruit with water and put the pan over a medium heat, stirring from time to time until the fruit goes very mushy. I help mine along (though I’m not sure it really does any good…) with a potato masher when it’s almost done.
Now pour the mush into a scalded jelly bag (an old pillow case will do just as well) suspended over a large bowl and leave it to drip, preferably overnight.
My maslin pan is an eight-litre one. In order to get six-odd litres of juice to make a big batch of jelly, I repeat the fruit-boiling stage twice, filling the pan as near as possible to the top each time, and leave the two batches to drip into the same bowl.
When you’ve gathered your liquid, pour it back into the washed maslin pan and bring it gently to the boil. When it has almost reached boiling point, start pouring the sugar in slowly. For six litres of liquid, the ‘proper’ thing to do would be to use about three kilos of sugar; I prefer my jam less sweet and so use only about 2.5 kg. The jelly takes slightly longer to set that way, but I prefer the taste.
Now bring everything back to the boil and let it bubble, stirring it from time. Ideally it should cook fairly vigorously, but not to the point where it ends up as toffee all over your stove, walls and floor – just as strongly as you feel you can permit without losing control.
I use a thermometre to know when the jelly is ready (104°C is gelling point at sea level: you can risk slightly less the higher up you are). But pouring out a little on to a saucer and waiting to see if it stays put when it cools is a perfectly good alternative.
When it’s ready, turn the heat off and let the jelly sit for ten minutes or so before ladling it into sterilised jars. My six litre batch makes about 4.5 litres of jam: enough to keep us going through the winter and have plenty over to give away.
©Anne Hanley, 2013