Posted by: internationalroutier | February 8, 2010

Forgotten Foods – Medlars

This will be the first in a, probably sporadic, series focusing on foods once common in the C17th but now sadly relatively unknown. The series was inspired by my op shop find Food by Waverly Root (which now I see that it is on Amazon second hand for $17US I am doubly excited to have picked up for $3.25AUS at my local Vinnies half price sale). The book is subtitle “An authoritative and visual history and dictionary of the foods of the world” and includes such delightfully readable entries as Jujube, Penguin and Flat Lobster, “which has endeared itself to underwater hunters by its suicidal habit of clacking its stubby claws together, making a clatter which leads to the platter”.

The book has a surprisingly large entry on medlars which were a common fruit fruit, popularity appears to have peaked in the Middle Ages, but now has all but disappeared from our tables. I am sure there are still a few old medlar trees scattered about in the older gardens of Australia. Have one? Know of one? Let me know!

The medlar is a small (about the size of a crabapple, or up to 5cm diameter) pear shaped fruit, with 2 very distinctive characteristics- both of which have probably led to it’s fall from favour.
As you can see on the painting the 5 dark brown seeds of the medlar are not totally encased within the fruit but protrude, as Mr Root delicately puts, “coyly…like a Spanish belle of earlier times listening to a serenade from the shadow of her latticed window”. The hoi polloi put it none so delicately and even in Shakespeare’s time the fruit was known as “openarse”.

If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
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.
O, Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
An open et caetera, thou a pop’rin pear!
Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet, II, 1.

Some editions actually say ‘open arse’ instead of ‘open et cetera’ but let us give Mercutio credit for being witty rather than base and vulgar.

Now if asking for an ‘openarse’ at the fruit shop hasn’t put you off yet, maybe the fact that you will have to wait til the fruit is completely rotten before you can eat it, will. In England the fruit is harvested on a dry day in late October or November, spread out on shelves or straw for 2-3 weeks til well bletted (A French word for ‘rotten’ probably originally employed by some marketing guru forerunner). Larousse gastronomic encyclopedia describes the medlar as “astringent and tart, not edible til it has rotted completely, when it possesses a rather agreeable wine-like flavour”. Used most frequently in desserts, jams and preserves it’s acidity is usually heavily disguised by sugar. Those who have seen the excellent Tales From The Green Valley series may remember Peter Sommer cooking with them in one episode.
A taster for those unfamiliar with Green Valley…



  1. I’ve had a few encounters with the old openarse … and indeed have a young tree (well, 10 years old) on one of the family properties. There is (or was) a mature tree in Burnley Horticultural
    college (Melbourne) nursery that I used to tend. Being into extreme fruit we tried them a few times – never got to packing them in straw – maybe that would help. Just used to eat the windfalls after they had ‘matured’ a bit. My memory was they were somewhat disgusting to eat strait … but visually appealing. Can probably get some budstock if anyone want to graft one.

    • I would love to! Would it start off in a pot ok and transfer later do you think? I think it is definitely one of those fruits for cooking only, bit like a quince in that regard.

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