Tag Archives: John Evelyn

“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.

Today Deptford…Tomorrow The World!

©2011David Porter

This old t-shirt, bought at the Albany Empire around 1980, is one of my prize possessions.  Every weekend we were either at the Albany, the Tramshed, The Duke, or the Royal Albert.  Sometimes all of them, and there was always a party afterwards at somebody’s house or flat, with the musicians and actors turning-up and rocking-on. There’s a very good book about this period, “Rock Around Lewisham” by local author and musician Mel Wright, I recommend it.  The old Albany Empire was in Creek Road near Albury Street, and famous for Rock Against Racism concerts, sadly in 1978 it burnt down and after a brief revival it was demolished to make way for a wider road.  The Albany rose again in Douglas Way and we all joined (you joined in those days) because the acts and the atmosphere were really electric, everybody from the Flying Pickets to Bo Diddley, via Pookiesnackenburger and Billy Connelly.  Squeeze were the dominant band, somehow more authentic than the equally ginormous Dire Straits.  I seem to remember Dire Straits supporting Squeeze at the old Albany, but I might be wrong.  Deptford was really buzzing: Bowie and the Spiders From Mars were rehearsing Ziggy Stardust in Underhill Studios (now Gee-Pharm chemists) at the bottom of Blackheath Hill, with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in attendance; John Cale of the Velvet Underground was here producing Squeeze, Mark Perry’s ‘Sniffin’ Glue‘ was being edited from a flat on the Crossfields Estate, and local band Rubber Johnny, led by John Turner were filling the gap between the opening act and the headliners at the Royal Albert. Soon they became so popular they were headlining their own gigs.

John Turner and Rubber Johnny at the Royal Albert c1982. ©Steve Golton.

In 1980 Squeeze released ‘Argybargy’, the last album with Jools Holland on keyboards. I was at the time what you’d call a rock photographer and photographed Squeeze several times.

Squeeze 1980 ©David Porter.

Squeeze photographed in 1980 by David Porter.

This picture was taken in 1980 in an old pea warehouse under the Floral Hall in Covent Garden which had been converted into a cavernous underground studio, I’ve still got the parachute.

In 1982 John Turner adapted Squeeze’s ‘East Side Story’ into a stage production for the Albany and called it ‘Labelled With Love.’ We were there when it opened, along with Tim Rice who was probably picking up a few tips on musical theatre. The play was set in a smoky Deptford boozer threatened with conversion into a disco cocktail bar, the fictional ‘Nail in the Heart’.  “It’s happening everywhere,” sighed Eric the pub landlord, “Bermondsey has fallen, Peckhams on the way, and Lewisham is sure to follow...” We all murmured agreement, and after the show trooped round to The Duke on Creek Road, transformed for the show’s run into The Nail, complete with  pub sign of a heart pierced by a nail, the landlord of The Duke was called Erich.

The opening track of ‘East Side Story’ is ‘In Quintessence’, one of those tunes you can’t get out of your head. A song about a 15 year old boy’s fantasy about a girl that he never sees, while he smokes himself into oblivion in his messy bedroom listening to his transistor radio. The ‘in quintessence’ hook is the bit I can never get out of my head. I didn’t know what quintessence meant at the time, I assumed it was a made up word something to do with quinces. Now I’ve found out one possible meaning is the fifth element!  The Greeks and Roman believed the quince was the golden apple, Aphrodite’s fruit of love.

Quince ©2011 David Porter.

It has the perfume of a loved woman and the same

    hardness of heart, but it has the colour of the

    impassioned and scrawny lover.”  

    (Shafer ben Utman al-Mushafi, died 982AD)

I’ve been given some quinces, from a tree on an allotment in Catford, and some from my friend in Lee with the greengage tree. Turkish shops are selling quinces now, at about £2 per kilo; their quinces are bigger than my home-grown variety but they all have the most subtle but unique perfume. You could just buy a bowlful and leave them to scent the room.

Plan of Sayes Court Garden in the 1650s. The British Library.

The quince is one of England’s forgotten fruit. We can be certain John Evelyn would have had quince trees among his 300 fruit trees in the orchard at Sayes Court, along with the similarly forgotten medlars, mulberries and vines, lemons, apricots and pomegranates.  Thanks to London’s Lost Garden I know that he listed a ‘Portugal Quince’ in his 1687 Directions for the Gardiner.  Quince trees in England were first recorded at the Tower of London in 1275, possibly they were here before 1275 but Evelyn’s Portugal Quince was introduced in 1611 by John Tradescant who was working as head gardener for Robert Cecil at Hatfield House.

Quinces ©2011 David Porter.

This recipe for baked quinces is adapted from the recipe in Jane Grigson’s ‘Fruit Book’, but they don’t have to be reserved for sweet puddings. Mrs Grigson gives recipes for quinces with beef, and with pheasant for instance, and I know of a Persian recipe for quinces stuffed with minced lamb. Mrs Grigson wrote that baked quinces were Isaac Newton’s favourite pudding, and of course Newton and John Evelyn were friends. It’d be nice to imagine John bidding farewell to Isaac, and pressing a bag of quince onto his friend, “I’ve so many…take some home…”

Baked Quince ©2011 David Porter

Baked Quince

Preparation time:  10 minutes

Cooking time:         90 minutes +

Ingredients (serves 4):

1 quince per person (assuming they are of a suitable size, otherwise 1 or 2 per person)

Juice of one or two lemons

150g caster sugar

110g unsalted butter

3 tbs double cream (or more if necessary)

2 glasses of sweet white wine

1 cinnamon stick, gently pulled into a few shards


Either peel entirely, or as I did peel strips from each quince. Hollow out the centre of each fruit, without piercing all the way through. I used an apple-corer but this is more difficult than it might appear, quinces are very hard! Squeeze lemon juice over the peeled exterior and the hollowed-out cores. Butter a small-ish roasting tin and stand the quinces in the dish. If necessary cut them a flatter bottom so they stand up.

Then mix together the sugar, butter, and cream, till the mixture is smooth and creamy. Fill the hollowed cores with this mixture, finishing with a tablespoon of sugar sprinkled over the top of each fruit. Scatter some shards of cinnamon stick around the dish.

Put in your oven preheated to 200C and bake for about 25 minutes, then pour in the wine. Carry on baking till the quince is tender. I tested for this with a slim skewer pushed through the side of a quince, avoiding the hard centre. If you’ve any of the creamy mixture left now is the time to top up the middles of your quinces. They took about 90 minutes altogether, you could reduce the heat to 180C and cook them for longer depending how soft you like your puddings I served them after transferring them to a heated dish and pouring some of the liquid around the quince, and have some cream ready to pour over them at the last minute.

©2011 David Porter.

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