Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
From Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll
Everything from cabbages to kings could be fodder for Lewis Carroll’s knowing nonsense. Nevertheless I believe there is a trio of fruits that have particularly Carrollian possibilities, venerable specimens of each can be found at the bottom of old parsonage gardens and other such hideaways: the down-covered common quince with a knobbly pear shape and enthralling aroma; soft black mulberries whose juice, when picked, streak hands and forearms indelibly crimson.
However the common medlar is a fruit whose character is such that, if it was a person, it would have to be described as challenging. Of the trio of ‘olde English’ fruits the tree that bears the medlar is in fact the most ornamental, with its long green leaves and white five-petalled flowers. But it ‘cocks-a-snook’ in autumn when it is hung with fruits in the shape of cul de chien, as the unembarrassable French call them. This undoubtedly would have been a hallucinatory vision too far even for the generally sanguine Alice.
Individual medlar fruit blet. Happening in its own time, bletting appears like a stage in child development akin to teething and potty training. In previous years we collected medlars from a local park, and from a generous friend, to nurture until the tell-tale signs make themselves known. The skin will stretch until shiny and the now soft fruit will give when squeezed between the fingers.
Mouldy and dried up fruit are obviously wayward children and should be shunned – nothing good will come of them.
Medlar jelly is nectar compared to perhaps its nearest equivalent, redcurrant jelly. Prepared from a good culinary variety (such as ‘Nottingham’), medlar jelly is much softer in texture, fruity in flavour but with an astringent edge. I not sure why people are not crazy about it because at its best it almost has the complex flavours of a wine. By its online presence I am clearly not the only medlar jelly maven; seasonal rituals are in short supply these days, especially of the idiosyncratic kind. Sadly this year not enough fruit could be gathered together to make jelly-making worthwhile, so an alternative had to be found.
For all I knew medlar syllabub was a complete fiction, cooked up for some nonsense verse or dodgy historical novel. But this year a version of it got me out of the difficulty with my annual medlar imperative. It was agreed that the result was delicious, a dish to search out medlars for – like the jelly had been in the past. It is an oddly satisfying process to take some apparently intractable stuff and turn it into something that everybody wants more of.
And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy
Medlar and Ginger Wine Syllabub
Syllabub is a euphonious word but represents a dish of doubtful lineage, if not origin. Some have actually attempted to milk a cow into a dish of sweet wine and collected the resulting foam. This much repeated cookbook pot-boiler has an element of colourful fantasy to me; leave the poor milkmaid to get on with her work and we will settle for a dish of flavoured whipped cream and sugar, or some other modern stand-in.
Quantities are frankly pointless as you can only get as many good medlars together at one time as you can. This is not a dish for the pedantic recipe follower as medlar flesh varies. That is not such a chore after all, especially when it comes to adding the ginger wine.
Slice the bletted medlars in half and scoop out the flesh, discarding the seeds. Push through a sieve to remove the stringy bits.
Sweeten the medlar meat with dark brown sugar then flavour with ginger wine and ground cinnamon, nutmeg etc.; taste and see is the only way to get a rich and fruity, gently spicy flavour. If you would rather not have the cream topping of the syllabub you can use all this filling for a tart or tartlets for which it is excellent – topped with toasted almonds they become very sort-after.
Otherwise reserve about a third or quarter of the filling to flavour the cream, and place the rest in the bottom of glass or ramekins. Whip the double (heavy) cream then mix in the reserved medlar filling and a small amount of apple juice to loosen it. Spoon into the ramekins.
My original medlar learning curve had been abrupt. Maybe fifteen years ago, that first medlar jelly was not my best. My flat was so small that I bletted them on the back seat of a car. The fruit had been left by a colleague on my desk as a gift one Monday morning, I can’t recall why – I must have had medlar written all over my face.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrations by John Tenniel. London 1865.