May 21, 2004

Bletted Medlars

Scan of the front cover of Robert Aickman's 'The Late Breakfasters'.I recently acquired and read a copy of Robert Aickman’s novel The Late Breakfasters. As Aickman is a relatively obscure author, and this perhaps his obscurest book, it proved quite difficult to obtain, and I ended up paying a high price for an unassuming age-spotted hardback in a typically garish yellow Gollancz dustjacket. But it was all worthwhile, as I do so enjoy the distinctive flavour of Aickman’s prose, redolent, to me, of a particular essence of Englishness: one that evokes heavy, cumbersome furniture, awkward encounters, and stodgy food; all related with fogeyish deliberation, yet that is meanwhile suffused with an air of completely baffling strangeness. One can rely on Aickamn’s backward-looking vocabulary to turn up an occasional odd or obsolete turn of phrase, and in this respect, The Late Breakfasters was no exception, the most obvious example being the bletted medlars.

The trouble was that no one seemed to want medlars: no one except perhaps Mrs. Hatch, and even she, like most people in such cases, seemed more concerned that the others should like medlars than happy that she liked them herself. She implied, with the faintest undertone of pugnacity, that these particular medlars had been preserved in eaxctly the recommended state of decomposition since the previous autumn, an undertaking involving much skill and difficulty, of which the present company were privileged to enjoy the benefit.
   To begin with, the Duke and Duchess did not know what medlars were, and fogged themselves worse and worse with obscure Germanic polysyllables, cooing together like puzzled budgerigars. Then Edwin seemed afraid that the deliquescent fibres would damage his suit. And Griselda had experienced medlars in the past.
   Pamela merely said “They look rotten.”
   The Duke, speaking German, made some reference to their smell.
   “Not rotten at all,” said Mrs. Hatch. “The fruit is in the finest possible condition for eating. It is properly bletted.”
   “What is bletted, Melanie?” asked the Duchess.
   “Medlars cannot be eaten, Odile, until they mature. Then they are the most delicious of all fruit. Try one and see for yourself.”

Photographs of some medlars: I could not say whether these are bletted, or not. I had vaguely heard of medlars before, but could bring nothing specific to mind, and had certainly never knowingly eaten one. I wondered exactly what bletting involved, and was surprised to find that the SOED contained no entry for the word. Fortunately, the inexhaustable internet offered up some specifics:

Parkinson in 1627 spoke “of the pleasant sweetness of the fruit when mellow.” But today they are nowhere available in shops or markets and impossible to find except in a few private gardens. This should change. […] The unique dark green brown fruit […] is picked after a hard frost. The flesh is then still hard, green and austere and must be kept on a dry cool shelf until the pulp softens and mellows when it turns a light brown. This process is known as “bletting.” The pulp has then a distinctive pleasantly acidulous flavor - source here.
Medlars have been cultivated since ancient times for their edible fruit which, as Alfred Rehder so delicately describes, “after incipient decay becomes soft and of agreeable acid taste.” This after-ripening, known as bletting, is similar to the ripening process of American persimmon. Bletted fruit has flesh with the consistency and taste of apple butter. - source here.
Detail from Folio 13 of the 'Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta', including two medlars (bottom left).
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.

Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet, II, 1.

This page was my source for the photograph above. The manuscript illumination (painted by Joris Hoefnagel) is one that, I just realised, I have posted before… Click on the images to see them enlarged.

Posted by misteraitch at May 21, 2004 02:42 PM | TrackBack

That is a well-bletted text you wrote there. My compliments!

Posted by: juriaan on May 21, 2004 03:27 PM

This is funny! I had some wonderful persimmon-like fruit at a restaurant in Anacapri a few years ago. I had no idea what they were, and when I looked up "nespole" in my Italian-English dictionary, it told me "medlar", which of course was no help at all. I had never heard of medlars!

Posted by: Barry on May 21, 2004 08:34 PM

Pardon the crudity, but no discussion of the medlar would be complete without noting its old slang name, "open-arse", which is the source of Shakespeare's innuendo about it. Elaboration here at the Romeo and Juliet Navigator.

Posted by: Ray on May 21, 2004 10:48 PM

I believe the French refer to them as "cul de chien" or dog's asshole, because of their resemblence to the same (the over-prominent calyx.)

Posted by: Roland Martin on June 15, 2004 06:45 PM

The fruit of the rosebush, commonly called "rose hips", is used for tea and traditional medicines because if its extremely high vitamin C content. The medlar tree is related to the rose, and medlar fruits can be thought of as extra-large rose hips. (I don't know the origin of this unusual name, but those with rosebushes may look for the fruits in any case.) The over-prominent calyx is identical, but as the fruit is about half the size of a raspberry the complete package is much more trim and the name "open-arse" is not visually suggested. Left to ripen after picking, the rose hips undergo a similarly notable change in texture.

Medlars were a traditional accompaniment to port wine to end a meal at the height of their popularity in 18th(?) century England.

Posted by: pierre on July 24, 2004 12:06 AM
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