Gardening decisions are often about return on investment. Not just, “Do I like that plant?”, but, “Do I like that plant to do enough to grow it, when there are other options available?” Wisteria may indeed look lovely, draped elegantly over a pergola at a country estate. But are you willing to put in the years of graft it requires to get to this stage? If you want to grow some herbs, do you choose coriander, which needs to be re-sown every 3–4 weeks, or basil, which, if you are careful with it, will keep you in leaves all summer? This is a rhetorical question.
My partner is a cook, and a similar calculation applies in her line of work. While great sauces take days to make, good sauces often take minutes, and taste almost indistinguishable. Having made dozens of entremets at culinary school, I doubt she’ll make another any time soon, especially now it’s crumble season.
On this basis, a medlar tree may be an unattractive proposition.
Medlars, Mespilus germanica, are fruit trees in the rose family, which is home to many of the world’s most important fruits (cherries, peaches, almonds). In particular, the medlar is closely related to the apple, quince and pear. The medlar is far weirder than its cousins, though.
Firstly, the fruit are fantastical things, like apples grown under a witch’s curse. To be more blunt: they look like arseholes. In The Reeve’s Tale, Chaucer refers to them by their colloquial name in the Middle Ages, “open-ers” – open-arse – which sadly hasn’t made it into modern parlance.
Secondly, you let them rot before you eat them. Fresh medlars are tough and inedible, but the “bletted” – read, rotten – fruit is delicious. This has, as you might imagine, added further literary poignancy: medlars represent ageing, prostitution, corruption. In Romeo and Juliet, before Juliet comes on the scene, Romeo is hopelessly in love with Rosaline. (Sidenote: where is my fanfic from Rosaline’s perspective?) Mercutio mocks Romeo:
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
Oo, er, missus.
You can eat bletted medlars as they are, or make “medlar cheese”, which is like lemon curd, or – and this is what you should really do – you can make medlar jelly.
This is what this whole post comes down to. Some things are worth it, however hard they are, however much extra effort you are obliged to put into them. I submit that medlar jelly is one of those things. It’s worth growing a tree of arseholes in your garden for years if you can make medlar jelly. It’s worth, as an alternative, scouring the fruit markets of England, scrumping, selling your body or your soul – it’s worth, in short, whatever you have to do – if the end result is medlar jelly.
It’s better than crabapple jelly, and quince jelly, and all the other jellies. It’s better than whichever foodstuff you’re thinking of right now to refute my point. It’s maybe even too good: we have several jars that, like posh Champagne, have sat untouched for years, because no occasion feels quite special enough.
I should add a couple of things. One, joking aside, medlars are actually an extremely attractive tree; two, you probably can’t grow one unless you have a bit of space; three, if you do grow one, as my parents do, it will help immeasurably with the pollination of any apple, pear and quince trees that flower at a similar time. Fruit tree pollination is extremely weird, and I won’t get into it now, but you’re likely to get better fruit if there are a few similar species in your garden. Finally, medlars fruit later than most other trees, so are a good choice if you want something to pick and eat (well, to pick and rot and eat) into the winter.
And if my inspiring, grab-life-by-the-throat conclusion doesn’t do it for you, here is another, more bathetic one. The jewel of the rose family, which yields the bulk of humanity’s favourite fruits, is a puckered arsehole that can only be eaten when rotten. Isn’t nature marvellous?