Medlars and the Edible Pleasures of a Garden in Winter / by Christine Smith

Medlar on the tree

In the fall, starting around the end of October, Seedleaf begins the process of putting its gardens to sleep. Spent plants are removed, the remaining produce is harvested and compost is scattered on top of our raised beds and covered with mulch. This transition is both wished for and dreaded. The spring and summer season are busy times and the winter promises time to slow down. By the end of October, we feel ready not to look at the gardens again for several months. But we are also passionate gardeners, farmers, and foodies. We really like to eat and we really like to graze as we work, preferring the direct ground-to-mouth pipeline of carrots, cherry tomatoes, basil, kale, and blackberries. Yes, the winter is a time for rest and planning but honestly, its approach is also a period that can try one’s heart and stomach. 

Yet, it is also true that the natural world is not as harsh as we make it out to be during this time. Trees without their leaves show the beauty of their trunks and their individuality as twisting branches and limbs become the focal point of our admiration. Seed heads that float above dead plant foliage offer birds food and some fruits offer up their best selves during this period. At our Grace garden on Race Street, the Medlar becomes the star of late fall and early winter. 

 Medlars, ready to be plucked and eaten.

Medlars, ready to be plucked and eaten.

The Medlar has been grown and enjoyed for centuries but it is not sold in stores and is unfamiliar to most people who hear the name or encounter it. It is also ugly and you have to eat it when it is rotten. In literature, the fruit is often used as a metaphor to describe something bad or evil that also feels good, most often referencing sex and prostitution. In truth, the fruit is at its best the more ‘rotten’ it is allowed to become. The Medlar is produced on a small tree that begins fruiting in the summer. If you cut it open during this time it is a pale and sometimes greenish white color with an astringent taste. It is considered unripe until it undergoes a process called ‘bletting’ where fall and winter frosts help the fruit soften and produce sugars. The fruit slowly turns from being hard, white and inedible to a mushy ball that when opened exudes brown pasty goo. Medlars reward the patient and if you have let your Medlar sit long enough either on the tree or in a cold place after harvesting, you will be rewarded with this mush that tastes like a mix of apple, pear, and cinnamon. After munching on several in a row, you will ask yourself how the garden continues to produce such wonders even in the cold of November. 

Medlars (Mespilus germanica) are now available at Grace Garden, 449 Race Street.