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November 17, 2004

Bletting Medlars


No, I haven't stroked out.

As Count Alfred Korzybski, the founder of the science of semantics, wrote in his seminal 1933 text, "Science and Sanity":

"When in doubt, read on."

Best advice I've ever received.

And the statement "The map is not the territory," also from this book, might be the second-best. But I digress.

David Karp wrote an enlightening article about medlars for the New York Times Dining Out section on November 3.

It's a fruit that was once utterly unavailable in the U.S., but is now slowly - very slowly - working its way in.

The unique thing about it is that it is inedible when ripe.

To be fit for consumption, the fruit must undergo a process of rotting known as "bletting."

Read the story, then the feature about how to get some so you can try them yourself.

When 'Fresh' Isn't a Selling Point

There are certain foods, like fugu and absinthe, whose notoriety far exceeds their culinary significance.

Such is the case for the medlar, an unlikely candidate for the next food fashion.

To be edible, the medlar - which resembles a runty, russeted apple with an open bottom fringed by pointy calyx ends - must undergo a process of rotting known as "bletting."

But in the last few years, at least half a dozen farmers seeking alternative crops have started to grow this legendary fruit - once utterly unavailable in the United States.

And at least one prominent New York City chef is so intrigued by it that he's ordered a shipment to cook with.

Called "wineskins of brown morbidity" by D. H. Lawrence, medlars have been emblematic of autumnal decay.

The flesh is usually hard, white and puckery at harvest in late fall. But when bletted, the pulp turns brown and tastes like winy, sweet-tart apple butter with cinnamon.

Traditionally the pulp is mixed with sugar and cream or made into jelly. In "Notes on a Cellar-Book" (1920), the great English oenophile George Saintsbury called medlars the ideal fruit to accompany wine.

Native to the Caucasus, northern Iran and Asia Minor, medlars were cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans and subsequently spread throughout Europe, where they were popular in the Middle Ages.

Three of the Unicorn Tapestries in the Cloisters depict the fruit.

Medlars fell from favor in the 20th century, when more convenient late-ripening fruits became abundant.

With their need for bletting, medlars are not exactly fast food.

Lucy Tolmach, the director of horticulture at the Filoli Center, a National Trust for Historic Preservation property in Woodside, California, bletted some medlars by placing freshly harvested fruits stem-down on wood trays covered with straw, and stored them in a cool, humid cellar.

Three weeks later, they were soft and plump, like little baked apples. To eat, bite holes in the skins and suck out the custardy pulp.

Several dozen varieties exist, but differ little in taste. "Japanese medlars" are actually loquats, a related species that ripens in spring.

In the United States medlar trees mostly grow in private gardens, but two farmers in the Northeast recently put in small plantings.

Ezekiel Goodband, the manager of Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont, planted 30 medlar trees.

"There are lots of closet medlar people out there," Mr. Goodband said last month while showing three-year-old medlar trees just starting to bear.

Six years ago Raymond Tousey of Germantown, N.Y., grubbed his money-losing commercial apple orchard and planted specialty fruits, including 25 medlars. He sells the fruit at the Rhinebeck farmers market.

Persuading fancy New York City markets to offer medlars has proven more difficult.

Last year Steven McKay, a Cornell University extension agent who works with Mr. Tousey, took a flat of medlars to the produce manager of Eli Zabar's Vinegar Factory.

"I called later, and he said that Eli didn't want those ugly things in his store," he said.

Just last week, however, Wylie Dufresne, the chef of WD-50, who had been searching for medlars for years based on their reputation alone, ordered a shipment from Mr. McKay.

"We're always on the lookout for new ingredients, and the flavor profile sounds really intriguing," he said.

Most demand for medlars in this country comes from immigrants familiar with them from their homelands.

In Iran, medlars, called "azgil," grow wild in the forests near the Caspian Sea and are sold from street-corner carts.

Iranian markets in Los Angeles are clamoring for the fruit and are willing to pay $3 or $4 a pound, said James Shahbazian, who grows 15 medlar trees in Turlock, California.

Last week Elio Dal Molin, a retired stonemason in Silver Spring, Md., who comes from the Friuli region of Northern Italy, ordered 70 pounds of medlars from One Green World, an Oregon source.

What was he doing with all that fruit?

"I'll eat them myself," he said.

"Medlars where I come from were a big thing. We used them to flavor wine. But I never see them in stores."

Now maybe he will. So it goes in today's produce market: In time, everything old is new again.

How To Get Medlars

Medlars and medlar trees and jelly are available from several sources.

Raymond Tousey, Rhinebeck, New York Farmers' Market, municipal parking lot, East Market Street, Sundays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., through November 21; medlars, three for $1.

One Green World, Molalla, Oregon. (877) 353-4028; medlar trees ($21.95 each, plus $9.50 shipping); fruits, through November 24, two pounds by second-day delivery, $24.95.

Scott Farm, 707 Kipling Road, Dummerston, Vermont. (802) 254-6868. Call for availability and prices.

One Saint James Green, Southwold, England, www.numberonestjamesgreen.co.uk or 011-44-1502-726-039. Tiptree medlar jelly by mail order, 340 grams (about 12 ounces) for about $11, including shipping.

November 17, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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I have been given a large bag of Medlars which are currently bletting - does anyone have a good recipe for Jelly

Posted by: Carol | Oct 19, 2008 2:14:40 PM

I have two third-year medlars in my medieval herb garden; this is the first blossoming for them, and I look forward to the fruit ripening and the bletting process. (I think!)

(After a couple of years of searching and only finding them available in the UK, I was finally able to purchase them from Burnt Ridge Nursery here in the US.)

Posted by: Teri Favreau | Jun 2, 2007 9:56:14 PM

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