Medlars

Medlars_3-IMG_5096-webThe medlar is a forgotten fruit that attracted a lot of interest from the Londoners I met. Here is the story of my London medlars experience and of what happened afterwards.

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Wisley Garden – Royal Horticultural Society

In November 2010 I was kindly given a few kilos of medlars, apples and pears by Jim Arbury, a fruit specialist at Wisley Garden, the flagship attraction of the British Royal Horticultural Society located in Surrey, half an hour away from South West London.

I had suggested that fruit grown in their orchard should be used to make and sell jam in their shop, which would have the unique characteristic of being produced with some of the 750 apple and 130 pear cultivars, not to speak of the plums, quinces, cherries and soft fruit available on their site.

I offered to make a few jars to show what such jam could actually be like.

We were late in the season though, so not much fruit was left on the trees. Jim Arbury told me about medlars. I had never heard of that fruit before, I was keen to discover.

They also had a few apples and pears in their fridges, so I quickly designed an experiment and proposed the following: I could make three or four different samples of jam using various combinations of medlars, apples and pears to achieve different tastes.

We agreed, and walked a few hundred yards into the orchard to pick the four kilos of medlars I needed.

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Mespilus germanica is the most common of medlar cultivars. Wisley Garden’s orchard, photo 5th November 2010.

We picked them from one side of the tree, to live the other side untouched as journalists had planned to take photos of the forgotten fruit the week after.

Then I was given a kilo of pears and three kilos of apples.

Medlars_2-IMG_5136-web

Medlars, apples and pears from Wisley Garden.

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The largest medlars were twice the size of large chesnuts.

A few days later, once the medlars had bletted, as you need to wait for this to happen before using them, I made four batches of jam:
– Pure medlar
– Medlar and pear
– Medlar, apple and vanilla
– Medlar, apple, vanilla and calvados.

Medlar_Jam_13Nov2010-web

200g jar samples of the four variants of jam. Photo 13th November 2010.

I wanted to taste the jams with Wisley Garden people as a way to start building a stronger relationship with them but didn’t have the opportunity to do it. So we enjoyed them at home with friends. The medlar-and-pear was my personal favourite, which proved to be a cracker with French custard.

The People’s Kitchen

I processed medlars at an other occasion in 2011. I used to volunteer for the Urban Orchard Project, an initiative aimed at planting and renovating orchards in London and now across the UK. They were partnering with various organisations to promote the use of local fruit, including The People’s Kitchen, where I was offered to run a medlar jam making workshop.

Why medlar jam, as it is quite difficult to make something of this almost unheard-of fruit? Well, the Urban Orchard Project team liked the jar I had given them, made with Wisley Garden’s medlars. One of their employees was also very interested in this forgotten fruit.

So they gave me the opportunity to volunteer at the People’s Kitchen and I designed and ran the workshop on Sunday 4th December 2011.

The eight participants left with a jar of medlar, apple and vanilla jam. Some of the jam was added to vanilla ice cream for the eighty or so people who ate at the People’s Kitchen restaurant on the night and the rest was kept by the Urban Orchard Project. With vanilla ice cream? Guests loved it.

An idea that caught on

My aim in approaching Wisley Garden and The Urban Orchard Project in 2010 was to raise awareness and interest in making jam with local fruit. I hoped at the time that we could team up and develop design solutions to that end, but it didn’t happen.

Having said that, in 2011, a year after discussing jam-making at Wisley, I saw for the first time blackcurrant jam made with their own produce for sale at one of their fairs. The idea had become reality.

As for The Urban Orchard Project, here is what I found on their website today:

Image 3

October 2014: “… we sold lots of our new Urban Orchard Produce – with medlar jam being the top seller…”. Screenshot, Urban Orchard Project website, 31st January 2015. Click on image to access page.

So here too the idea caught on, and I must say I find the design of the Urban Orchard Project’s jar labels quite good and the success of the sale encouraging.

I would have liked to be more involved in all of this, as I was one of the initiators of this type of production, but still, I am happy to see that my medlar jam, my second ever experiment of making jam with local fruit in London (the first one was plum jam made in July 2010 with fruit picked in Wimbledon) has led to a more substantial, although still confidential, activity using available local fruit.

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