Is it worth meddling with a medlar?

What do they look like to you?

I’M STILL not sure whether it was worth it. I’ve gone halfway across Sheffield to pick medlars – hard little brown fruit no one seems to have heard of – from trees and taken them home to rot in my cellar.

 Then I’ve boiled them up, strained the juices, added sugar and all I’ve got to show for it is two small measly jars. As for the taste, well, it’s fugitive. Perhaps I should have taken the hint for the common name for medlar is dog’s arse, as the French say, cul de chien.

You can’t eat a medlar until it rots, or blets, when it turns sweet. In ancient times, before oranges and grapefruit and fruit like that was available to the common man they were supposedly highly prized for their sugar hit in winter.

To eat them, peel back the outer casing, suck everything in then discreetly spit. For inside is a little ball of sweetish flesh encasing  large seeds you wouldn’t want to swallow. The taste and texture is midway between a fig and date. I picked some last year but lost interest after the first few moutfuls and they bletted to kingdom come.

The ones on the left have bletted

So this year I was going to make a jelly. My recipe, from Marguerite Patten’s ‘James, Preserves and Chutneys,’ said two pounds of medlars to a pint of water and I had just over that weight. I cut them up small and boiled them up. I was unsure if they would contain enough pectin and dislike adding the commercial variety so also chopped up a couple of Bramley apples.

They mushed up pretty quickly so they soon went into the straining bag for the afternoon. The liquid was dirty brown, like tea. Perhaps if I had left it overnight I might have got more juice – just a pint – which tasted pretty insipid.  I boiled it down a bit further to increase the flavour and added the juice of half a lemon – more to perk it up than for pectin.

Medlars with apples in the pan

It set on the second test but there wasn’t a lot of it, just enough for those two small jars. That brown brew cleared to a lovely whisky-type hue but medlar jelly doesn’t taste anything like eating one raw. The date-cum-fig effect has gone; instead it’s more like honey. I have just had some on a slice of bread and butter to confirm my impression.

It’s not been a complete waste of time but if I do it again next year I will need to pick many more pounds to make it worth the effort. Or I might combine it with other fruit. Dates or figs!

Medlar jelly – lovely colour and tastes like honey

Bilberry? I can see clearly now

Bilberry and vanilla jam

Bilberry and vanilla jam makes a nice change

You have to watch out for the snails. Tiny little things, micro snails really, that get caught up with the berries when you go bilberrying. If you’re planning a pie or some bilberry jam the last thing you want is an unexpected crunch between your teeth.

Funny thing is, when I went bilberry picking last summer I didn’t notice a single snail but then I didn’t look for them. On an earlier expedition this month my bilberry comb seemed to scrape up lots of them along with the berries, leaves and twigs. So now I pick the berries over very carefully indeed and leave them in a bowl, giving any snail time to crawl to the surface. I reckon if it’s survived so far I’m not going to flush it down the sink so take it gently outside.

This last time I had 575g of berries left after I’d had some with my breakfast cereal and porridge so I decided it was quickest and easiest to make some jam. If you google ‘bilberry’ you invariably get the story that bilberries were supposed to help RAF pilots’ vision in World War Two. I reckon this comes from the same stable as the myth about the RAF and carrots but, who knows?

Marguerite Patten, in her jam makers’ ‘bible’ Jams, Preserves & Chutneys surprisingly doesn’t mention bilberries at all. But she does blueberries, which are a larger, sweeter form of the fruit. If you google ‘bilberry pectin content’ you will be told it is on the low side. Marguerite, however, says it is high and her recipes contain no lemon for added pectin. As the bilberry is a tarter fruit I should imagine its pectin content is higher. What she says is good enough for me, although I do like to add a little lemon to most jams just to highlight flavours. I also decided to add a teaspoon of vanilla essence for a change this time.

The rule of thumb is the same weight of sugar as fruit but I decided to make it a little fruitier by cutting back on the sugar to 500g. I just added a tablespoon of water to the berries to start them off and crushed them only lightly to release the juices. Some recipes will have you producing a paste-like jam. Then I stirred in the sugar, the juice of half a lemon and the vanilla. I had a set, using the saucer test, in seven minutes.

I like a very light set. Here’s a tip. When you’ve taken your plate out of the freezer and put a blob of jam on it put it in the fridge (not freezer!) for a good five minutes before applying the wrinkle test. If you don’t give it a good time to set you may run the risk of cooking on when you don’t need to and it becomes a stiff paste.

I got four jars of varying sizes and the jam has the sweet-sharp qualities of the raw fruit plus a little vanillary background. I like it. And so far I’ve not crunched . . .