November - Preservation Orders Part II

MEDLAR MALARKEY

Bring out your inner Tudor with this recipe for medlar jelly for use in gravies and glazes or just as it is on toasted crumpets.

medlar fruitFor Part the Second of this autumn's Preservation Orders (Part I here), I'm indebted to fellow-member Mr Geoffrey Ing whose daughter made him a present of a medlar sapling. After some vintages en blanc as it were, it surprised him with a robust crop of the curious fruit, and he very kindly brought a bag of it to Stevenage last year for my delectation.

He had done his homework too. Before being usable, medlars must be bletted, that is to say, allowed to mature, either on the tree until the first frosts strike (eismedlars, one presumes!), or in a cool, dark place until they become brown, soft, withered and, frankly pretty unappetising. As Chaucer's Reeve tells his fellow-pilgrims to Canterbury, though in the context of the human condition rather than home preservation, 'til we be roten kan we nat be rype'.

Having said that, as the rot sets in, the pectin level, which is woefully low in medlars, drops yet further and if your preserve is to have a hope of setting properly, it's essential to have a proportion of unbletted fruit in the mix. Thank you Mr Ing for a perfectly balanced consignment, suggesting a painstaking combination of staggered harvesting and expert triage and enabling me to achieve a first - home-made medlar jelly for Christmas.

Medlars were, as you might say, flavour of the month during the reign of Elizabeth I and next time you make a pilgrimage to The Society, you might go and inspect one in the gardens of Hatfield House, custodian of all things Elizabethan. The house is splendid, and well worth a pilgrimage in its own right, though be careful who you take along.

I vividly recall accompanying a party of Spanish wine-growers on a guided tour of the building before a Society tasting and dinner in the grounds many years ago. Having admired a collection of armour impounded from sundry invaders, and visited the library, a veritable cradle of Tudor history, my señores were told in no uncertain terms by our historically if not diplomatically correct guide what a complete and utter pushover the Spanish Armada was.

I was about to take refuge in being Welsh, always handy on these tricky English occasions, until I remembered the origins of the Tudors. Luckily for our 150-odd waiting members, our growers saw the funny side and, unlike the Armada, stayed for supper.

Owing to their curious appearance as much as the rotting requirement, medlars have always suffered from negative PR. Rude names for them range from the French cul de chien to the only marginally less genteel open ers of Middle English and they often crop up in unflattering metaphors. The most terminally graphic description of a medlar I've come across yet is D H Lawrence's 'wineskins of brown morbidity, autumnal excrementa' with 'an exquisite odour of leave-taking'!

None of this nonsense should put you off. Medlar jelly is a glorious affair, a rich golden-pink in colour, like old brocade, but bright and clear, with a haunting bouquet of honeyed fruit and a whiff of roses. Delicious on toast or, better yet, buttered crumpets, it also adds piquancy and subtle sweetness to a game jus or gravy.

There are a number of recipes online, from such luminaries as Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nigel Slater, so by all means choose your own tried and trusted pillar of TV chefdom and do exactly what he tells you. Personally, when faced with an unfamiliar fruit, I favour the consensus approach, reading everything I can find on the subject for a comprehensive collection of useful tips and a well-reinforced set of key principles.

Firstly if you are doing your own bletting, do store the fruit in one layer or it will properly rot. An unused kitchen drawer (not under the cooker) or a shallow tray in a cool, dark pantry are ideal containers. How long it takes to achieve perfection depends on how ripe/recently it was harvested. It could take a few weeks. Keep an eye on it and discard any visibly mouldy fruit.

Perversely, after all that, 20-25% of your fruit weight should be unbletted. If this isn't possible, boost the pectin content by doubling the quantity of apples and lemons in the recipe. Next, only use as much water as you need just to cover the fruit in the initial boil or you risk diluting that precious pectin.

Finally, and very importantly, gently does it. Leave the fruit alone while it's cooking and let the juices strain slowly and naturally, unforced and unpressed, rather like the free-run cuvée that makes the best Champagne.

Use your jelly to add a bit of sweetness to the cooking juices of goose or pheasant. Another lovely idea is to use it as a glaze for an apple tart instead of the more usual apricot jelly. In either case, wine-wise, I'd pick out a subtly spicy white - the rose-scented notes of a gewürztraminer, perhaps, sweet or dry as appropriate. A muscat would work too, or any light dessert wine with elements of honey and spice.

Or why not just butter some toast lavishly, pile on your medlar jelly and bring out your inner Tudor?

Janet Wynne Evans

MEDLAR JELLY

Makes 2 x 450g jars

  • 1kg well-bletted medlars (dark brown and squishy)
  • 250g unripe medlars (yellow and hard)
  • 1 Granny Smith or other very sharp apple, roughly chopped
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • 800g preserving sugar

medlar fruitNote: We're often urged by sensible and thrifty kitchen gurus to use ordinary granulated sugar rather than paying the premium for preserving or jam sugars. However, one of the things you are paying extra for is added pectin, and in this case, my view is that every little helps.

Trim the medlars of leaves and horny bits and rinse well. Cut in half, or quarters if very large. Put them in a preserving pan or wide, deep saucepan with the apples and add just enough cold water to cover. 1.5 litres should be plenty but pour it in carefully and stop immediately the fruit is barely submerged.

Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer very gently for about an hour until everything is soft and pulpy. Resist any temptation to stir or mash it constantly unless it's catching on the bottom of the pan. Avoid that by keeping an eye on the water level and adding a little more if needed. Check consistency after 45 minutes by removing one of the fruit with a slotted spoon and testing with the point of a knife.

Line a large sieve with a linen tea towel and place over a clean saucepan or mixing-bowl. If you have a proper jelly-bag, so much the better. Transfer the contents of the pan into it and leave the juices overnight to drip through.

Give the soggy bundle of pulp the very gentlest of squeezes to extract all available pectin before transferring the strained juice into a measuring-jug. You should have the best part of a litre of hauntingly lemony, rose-infused juice. If you have more, or it lacks concentration, put it back into a saucepan and boil it down until it bewitches you, as it should. If you have less but it tastes promising, just adjust the quantity of sugar proportionally in the next step. A good working ratio is 450g sugar to 600ml juice.

Now is the time to sterilise jars, tongs to handle them, a jam funnel and a small glass jug for filling the pots. Keep these hot in the oven while you put a couple of saucers in the freezer ready to test the set.

Return the juice to the pan and add in the sugar. Stir gently to dissolve, then boil hard until it hits 105?C on a jam thermometer. Spoon a small quantity on one of the chilled saucers, leave for a minute and test for set by nudging it with your finger. If it wrinkles gelatinously, that's a good sign. If it's still runny, boil for another 5 minutes and try again. You can repeat that just once more if necessary, but after that, just cross your fingers and pot it.

Pour into the sterilised jars, top with waxed discs and seal with cellophane pot-covers, secured tightly with elastic bands. Leave to cool completely - preferably overnight.

If, at that stage the jelly is hopelessly runny (as mine was), you can try emptying it into a clean pan with a tablespoon or so of extra sugar (not too much as it will make the jelly too cloying) and reboiling it until it again reaches 105°C on the thermometer - about 5 minutes or so. Somewhat tediously, you will have to resterilise your jars and potting paraphernalia, but I can report that it was worth the effort. The jelly was a lovely soft, but upstanding set. Had it not been, I would have had a lovely syrup at least!

When the jelly has cooled, put on the lids and labels. Stored in a cool, dark place, this will keep for several months.

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