Monthly Archives: November 2011

“Widow Medlar? She Lies Open to Much Rumour…”

I’ve just finished making some Medlar Jelly from fruit gathered in my local park.  Medlars are forgotten and neglected now like quince and mulberries, but John Evelyn had Medlar trees in his Deptford orchard, as mentioned in his ‘Directions For the Gardiner at Sayes Court‘.

Medlars in September

When you find a Medlar tree, say in the Summer, you watch and wait.  And wait… Around the middle of October you’ll still be waiting, and watching. Traditionally Medlars are picked at the end of November, after the first hard frost. David Pennel from the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale reckons it is better to pick the fruit at the end of October. “If you leave them on the tree to blet, they may become infected with a fungal rot. You won’t know they have been affected, but the fungus will taint anything you make with the Medlars. Just one infected fruit will taint everything.” They have about 8 trees at Brogdale, and sell all the fruit they produce. “In a good year we’ll sell 30 – 40 kilos per tree, in a very good year we might get 100 kilos from a single tree.”

Dan Neuteboom who grows and sells the trees from his nursery in Norfolk says that people only buy them for the blossom, not the fruit. He sells about 40 trees a year, of about 4 different varieties. Nigel Slater planted a Medlar in his garden, along with Quince, Mulberry, and Cobnut. He said he was “captivated by the romance and mystery… a fruit shot through with visions of walled Medieval gardens…How could anyone resist?”

The Benny Hill of Fruit

The medlar is the Benny Hill , the Monty Python, the Julian Clary and the Blackadder of fruit.  Their medieval name is ‘open-arse’, but they have other names: ‘granny’s arse’, and in France cul de chien, the ‘dog’s bottom’! An 18th Century essay described them: “A fruit, vulgarly called an open arse; of which it is more truly than delicately said, that it is nevre ripe till it is as rotten as a turd, and then it is not worth a fart.

Thomas Middleton 1580-1627

Widow Medler was a character in Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean play ‘A Trick To Catch the Old One.‘  Medlars were common sexual innuendo in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, Shakespeare used medlars for smutty laughs in four of his plays. In Romeo and Juliet he has Mercutio nudge and leer to Romeo “Now will he sit under a medlar tree, and wish his mistress were that kind of fruit as maids call medlars when they laugh alone.  An open-arse and thou a poper’in pear!”  He went to town with the triple entendre of a ‘poper’in pear.’ Poper’in pear was a reference to the shape of a man’s genitalia, and there’s the obvious ‘pop-her-in’, and ‘pop’ as in ‘pop goes the weasel’, a reference to orgasm.  Shakespeare wasn’t the only writer to succumb to the temptation of a cheap laugh from the pit at The Globe.  A few centuries earlier Chaucer wrote in The Reeve’s Tale, “if I fare as dooth an open-ers…till we be roten can we not be rype“.

Chaucer was refering to the apparent contradiction of rotten ripeness, so did  DH Lawrence:

                                        “I love you, rotten, delicious rottenness.
                                           I love to suck you out from your skins                                                          
                                           So brown and soft and coming suave,                                                            
                                                    Morbid, as the Italians say.
                                       What a rare, powerful, reminiscent flavour
                            Comes out of your falling through the stages of decay:
                                                  Stream within stream.

                             Something of the same flavour as Syracusan muscat wine

                                                             Or vulgar Marsala.
                              Though even the word Marsala will smack of preciosity
                                                      Soon in the pussy-foot West.

                                                                 What is it?
                                         What is it, in the grape turning raisin,
                                                  In the medlar, in the sorb-apple.
                                                    Wineskins of brown morbidity,

                                                        Autumnal excrementa

Medlars are eaten when they appear rotten, bletted is the word used for ripe medlars. When they first appear on the tree they are about the size of a large walnut and hard and inedible. If you cut one the flesh will be white like a very hard apple, and bitter.

Bletted Medlar

As they age the flesh softens, browns and becomes juicy. If you squeeze a bletted medlar the juice will ooze from the paper-thin skin. The best way to eat a bletted medlar is to break the skin and suck out the flesh, it tastes somewhere between a date and dry apple sauce, with a rumour of cinnamon. The taste is totally unique and delicious.  To make more of them you’ll have to make them into fruit cheese, comfits, or a tart. Perhaps the easiest recipe is Medlar Jelly.

Shepherds’ Makhila, picture from wikicommons

They are related to the rose and the hawthorn, and in ancient times the wood was used to make spear points. Basque shepherds carry a stick called a makhila, made from the Medlar tree. The Malika is carved on the living tree, left for a year then cut down and heated. Then for a further ten years (!) the stick is alternately soaked in a secret solution and rubbed with pork fat. One end has a steel tip, and the other a stiletto blade concealed by a silver handle engraved with the owners name.

My pan of bletted medlars with lemon and apple, ready to cook.

This recipe is adapted from  “The Complete Cook” by Nell Heaton, published in 1946, old recipe books are the places to find medlar recipes. It is a simple recipe though you really need a thermometer. Nigel Slater suggests adding lemons and apples, 1 lemon cut into six pieces and half an apple per 450g medlars , they help the jelly to set, or you could use quince for the same reason. Alternatively you can add some hard medlars, about one third of the weight of the bletted medlars. Medlar jelly goes well with game and mutton, and with cheese and walnuts. From my original 3.5 kg I ended up with just under 2 kg of usable bletted medlars.

Medlar Jelly

 Medlar Jelly

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 60 – 90 minutes


(the following amounts assume 450 g Medlars, adjust to scale)

450 g Medlars, bletted, ripe, soft and undamaged.
300 ml water
350 g sugar


Wipe the fruit with a clean dry cloth, then:
Either cut them into pieces, or as I did place them whole into a pan
with some water, 300 ml water to each 450 g fruit so the water just covers them. Bring to a boil then simmer, and wait till they become pulp.  Avoid stirring, but you could press down onto the fruit with the back of a serving spoon, this may take up to an hour.
Then using a clean Jelly Bag or a piece of muslin, strain the liquid through the bag slowly. Don’t squeeze the bag! Patience! You want the jelly to be as clear as possible. Measure the juice then return to a clean pan, and for each 300 ml of liquid add 350g sugar. Boil the mixture hard and uncovered, use a thermometer to heat till the ‘jam’ setting is reached (104C), when the acid and pectin reacts with the sugar which will make jelly when the liquid cools. Should be around 4 – 5 minutes.  Skim off any scum which I neglected to do with my first batch, don’t worry if you forget!  Then pour into warm jars. Leave to set, then cover.  The jelly will be an unexpected reddish colour and taste unlike anything else!

©2011 David Porter.

A Positive Terry Thomas…

If only Nikki could see me now, I thought.  Back in June at a bit of a loose end, I enrolled on ‘A Taste of Food Writing’ course at Greenwich Community College. I’d always fancied trying to write about food so when I read about the course in ‘The Guide’ I thought “why not?”

There were about a dozen of us taking part, and I was probably the least experienced cook in the class. Nikki Spencer was our inspirational tutor and mentor and during the first class, to break the ice, she asked us to talk about ourselves, what we did, what cookery books we had, how many, and which dishes we liked cooking, which restaurants we’d visited, and so on. Rather shamefaced I said I didn’t cook, but I read cookery books for fun, and I prefered eating at home.  I’ve been around cooks for years and I’ve eaten some extraordinary dishes, so I’ve always been confident I could cook, if I wanted to!

The course progressed over five weeks, at about week three Nikki talked to us about food blogging. For our ‘homework’ she asked us to go away and come back with something written for an imaginary blog. “About 300 words..?” said Nikki hopefully.  Fired with enthusiasm I decided to do it for real, and so Deptford Pudding was born.  I can’t say it was easy, I’m not the most computer-friendly person and I found the technicalities really hard work for the first couple of posts but then I began to get the hang of it.  I can’t stick to 300 words though.  “You’re an editor’s nightmare,” said my friend the editor.

Nikki is doing more courses at the Greenwich Community College next year, if you’re interested contact the college; or how about Nikki’s latest course  ‘A Real Taste of Food Writing‘ which will take place at The Guildford in Greenwich where chef Guy Awford will cook a three course lunch, and reveal the behind-the-scenes life of a busy restaurant, as well as talking about his blog and answering questions.

Terry Thomas. Picture courtesy of Whisky Media

It was 6.30 on a Sunday evening four weeks ago when Clarissa slipped in some mud on the marshes and broke her arm. We dashed first to Sheppey hospital, where she was x-rayed and put in a half plaster,  and then immediately onto the Medway Hospital in Chatham clutching a letter which the nurse assured us would move us to the head of the queue in A & E.

At 9.00pm we reached Chatham, the waiting area in the biggest A & E in Kent was hot, sweaty, and packed…  standing room only.  After a warm sunny day, most of the people waiting were dressed for a late summer barbeque, some were in sports strip limping and clutching knees or ankles.  A couple of people were covered in blood, it was like a scene from ‘Blade Runner’ I thought, complete with two policemen in Robocop gear marshaling the queue at reception. Large family groups squatted on the floor eating bags of crisps from a kiosk selling drinks and sandwiches. I asked when the kiosk closed, “we’re open 24/7,” was the glazed reply. Not that it mattered I had very little money and in our dash we’d left the means to get cash behind. The lurcher was abandoned outside in the car park, which was of course pay and display 24/7.

Once, for the ‘News of the World,’ I photographed “24 Hours in Casualty”. The editor had decided Guys on a Saturday would be crammed with dramatic human interest stories ripe for the picking.  I was given the night shift, 10pm Saturday till 10am Sunday, the period expected to yield the most bloody drama. But Casualty was eerily quiet and empty at midnight. The bored nurse on the desk said, “Why’d you come here? If you wanted some action you should have gone to Lewisham.” A couple of people drifted in with minor cuts and bruises, then some very hard looking men arrived and seeing me with my camera one of them said “Point that thing at us sunshine and you’ll be sorry.” So I didn’t. The next night we heard that someone had dropped dead in the car park outside, and a deranged gunman had dashed in firing a shot into the ceiling. The feature never appeared.

After waiting six hours at Medway we were seen at 3am by an orthopedic specialist who announced he would have to straighten Clarissa’s strangely bent arm, it was,  said the tired doctor, “a dinner fork fracture”, a literal description of the shape of her arm, which had been forced into her wrist.  Straighten it now he meant as he called for help, no anesthetic just two men pulling and tugging at her wrist and elbow.

typical 'dinner fork' fracture, courtesy wikimedia commons

Straightened to his satisfaction her arm was fully plastered, “What colour would you like?” said the smiling plasterer. “White” we said in unison, because we’re traditionalists. He shook his head sadly, “We’ve red, blue, and pink.” Pink turned out to be a shade I’d call ‘kinky pink’ so we went for that. Another wait in a bleak corridor for an x-ray, you can just see the pink plaster in the reflection, then home as dawn broke.

spot the pink arm

A few days later and we’re back in Chatham seeing the consultant. “It’s a positive Terry Thomas.” He almost beamed, a little too pleased with himself, “we’re probably going to have to operate.”

We asked to be transferred to Lewisham hospital, and so a week later we’re seeing a different consultant. This one looked a bit like Boris Johnson but without the bedside manner. By way of a hello he said ‘”I hope you realise how serious this is?”  His students milled around the x-ray, clucking.  “We’ll have to wait for it to mend, then break it again and insert a plate.”

Since Clarissa broke her arm she’s been completely out of action and in a lot of pain.  Suddenly I’m a full-time carer, cooking breakfast and making endless cups of tea, plus a snack at lunch time, and then dinner. I’m enjoying being the cook and deciding what’s for dinner, I’m even enjoying the shopping.

home made hop bread

We’ve had some simple dishes, salads and soup, and some more imaginative cooking with fish and rabbit, but Clarissa has insisted on making the bread single-handed (hah-hah).

duck eggs are bigger in every way

She’s decided her favourite meal is one of the simplest: poached eggs with chips. Not potato chips, but parsnip and beetroot chips. We rarely eat potatoes since deciding that they don’t really taste of anything anymore. (I can still remember the last time I ate a potato that tasted remotely like potatoes should taste, and that was around 1990.)

Mike from Mersham Game

Every week since September I’ve bought eggs from Mike of  Mersham Game at Brockley Market.  Mike has 20,000(!) free-range hens, and his neighbour has 2,000 free-range ducks, I’ve been buying hen and duck eggs from his stall every Saturday. When he sees me and the wonder-lurcher wandering his way Mike picks up the egg boxes and starts filling them. Duck eggs are my favourite, they’re bigger than hens’ eggs with more flavour. Duck eggs contain less water than hens eggs and therefore are brilliant for baking. Want to bake light fluffy cakes? Use duck eggs… Mike sells hens eggs for £1 a half dozen, and duck eggs for £1.50 a half dozen. A bargain!

Luke with his brace of partridge

Walking around the market on Saturday we struck up a conversation with Luke, who is studying painting at Camberwell Art College.  He caught our attention because he looked as if he’d just stepped out of a fashion shoot in his black velvet jacket, carrying a brace of still-feathered partridge dangling from his wrist.  Like a willowy and more handsome version of Pete Doherty, Luke admitted he’d been vegetarian up till three weeks earlier, but he’d been attracted by the traditional offerings from Mersham Game. We wondered what he had planned for the partridge.  “I’m going to put them in a pot, with some other things,” he said, vaguely but at the same time confidently. Which is exactly what I would have said…

Here’s my ‘recipe’ for poached egg with root vegetable chips (that’s French fries for anyone reading this in North America!). I used a duck egg because they are bigger, and taste more ‘eggy’.  And I always use dripping to fry the chips, but you could use vegetable oil.

poached duck egg, with parsnip, swede, sweet potato and beetroot chips

Poached Egg and Chips

Preparation time: 5 minutes to peel the vegetables and chop into chips.

Cooking times: 10 minutes to par-boil the chips. 15 – 20 minutes to fry the chips. 3 minutes to cook each poached egg.

Ingredients  (per person) :

Flour for dusting the chips

1 or 2 parsnips, washed.

1 small beetroot, peeled.

Half a swede (or less),  peeled.

1 sweet potato, washed. I try to use the orange fleshed sweet potato.

200g beef dripping, or if you use vegetable oil you’ll need sufficient oil for a depth of about 25 – 35 mm.

Clear malt vinegar, about a quarter cupful.

1 duck egg.

Black pepper, and sea salt.

Method :

Cut the vegetables into chip sized pieces, the bigger they are the longer they’ll need to cook. But, if you use beetroot cut them smaller, and try to keep them separate from the rest of the vegetables because they’ll stain them. (I fried the beetroot separately in a small saucepan using an extra 100g of dripping.)

Par-boil the chips for 10 minutes, or less, don’t let them get too soft. Test with a pointed knife.

While the chips are simmering, melt the dripping in a deep saucepan, mine is 200 mm in diameter and 125 mm tall. Heat till it fizzles if you dip the tip of a knife dipped in flour into the fat.The melted dripping should be about 25 mm deep, so this is shallow frying.

When the chips are par-boiled, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and drain in a colander. Scatter flour across a plate and toss each chip in the flour till they’re coated on every side. Then drop the chips into the hot dripping. Move the chips around in the fat, turning them with a palette knife making sure they are cooking evenly.

While they are cooking heat a saucepan of water till it boils. The water should be at least 75 mm deep. Prepare the eggs: (I cook them one at a time), have a cup or ramekin ready for each egg, and break the eggs into the cups. Heat your oven to plate-warming temperature, and put a plate in the oven to warm. If you’re only poaching one egg there’s no need to do this, but if you’re poaching 2 or 3 or 4, or more, then you’ll need to keep them warm while you cook all of the eggs. I’ve poached 6 eggs using this method, they stay warm without the yolks setting. If you use a large pan of water, I believe you can poach 4 – 6 eggs more or less at the same time, but I’ve never tried.

It is difficult to burn the chips but if you think they are ready before the eggs, just lift them out with a slotted spoon and put them in the oven to keep warm.

About 5 minutes before you expect to serve the finished dish, tip the vinegar into the boiling water. This stops the egg whites dispersing. (Don’t put any salt into the water.) Slightly reduce the heat so the water just goes off the boil. Take a hand whisk and vigorously stir the simmering water, I like to think stirring clockwise lets gravity give you a hand.

When you have a vortex in the water take an egg and quickly slide the egg into the centre of the swirling water. The egg will disappear from view in the water but don’t worry. Set a timer for 3 minutes for a soft egg yolk, more for hard. Hens eggs will take half a minute less. My experience is that it is very difficult to over-cook a poached egg.

Have your serving plate ready, check the chips, they should be crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Scoop them out of the fat with a slotted spoon and arrange them on the plate. After 3 minutes, carefully scoop the poached egg from the water again with a slotted spoon and arrange the egg on top of the chips. Scatter with sea salt and black pepper and serve.


©2011 David Porter.

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