These days, with farm fresh produce on every aisle of the local megamart, rotten fruit is a rare sight. And if, god forbid, you enter your kitchen to see that rot has set in on your golden delicious and pink ladies, the bin is never far away. We avoid decay at all costs.
But t’wasn’t always so. It is true that one bad apple can rot the whole barrel. But have you ever tried putting a tap at the bottom of that rotten barrel? Half the time the effects are nicely boozy.
My friend once took a whisky distilling course, and they gave him a briefcase full of tiny bottles of scent essences, like the BFG’s bag of bottled dreams, which broke whisky down into its component aromas: caramel, leather, cloves, marmalade, peat smoke. But we were sceptical of bottle number 7, which bore the grim label: decay. I was worried that training our noses to detect decay would ruin whisky for us. But quite the opposite. The vial when opened conjured up funky truffles and fine aged blue cheeses. I came to appreciate decay. I became a connoisseur of damp leaves, rotting wood and old gym shoes.
But I’m not trying to sell you on stinky blue cheese and slimy mushrooms. I’m talking about a milder and tastier microbial infection. There used to be a whole class of fruits which were only eaten in a state of decomposition. Fruits like service berries and rowan berries were left to be frost-damaged and fester on the tree. And, miracle of miracles, it made them taste better, not worse. Such berries are high in intensely sour and in some cases poisonous acids which can be broken down by the rotting process or, as it was called then “bletting”.
But one fruit is the king of decay, born to be bletted: the medlar. Here it is in the wild, showing very clearly why the Tudors once called it the “open-arse”. Ooh err.
Why such high praise from me for this largely-forgotten fruit? Short answer, it tastes good. But only, once again, when rotted. Bite into a fresh, ripe but not yet-bletted-medlar and you’ll be treated to an unpleasant experience. You pierce the rock-hard, slightly granular flesh with your teeth only to have your tongue immediately violated: first by extreme sourness, then by an odd, mouth-filling powdery dryness, like eating a spoonful of flour or baking soda.
But you know what they say (or maybe you don’t, because I just made it up): “Medlars green: taste obscene. Medlars brown: go to town.” After the crabappley green-white flesh has fully mellowed into sticky goo (it usually happens if you keep medlars spread out on a bed of straw for a few weeks), slice that bad boy open and scoop him out (watch out for seeds).
What once was sour, now is sweet. What once was hard is toffee-soft. Even that weird powdery dryness is re-characterised by rot – the dry and floury texture now comes through as rich and cakey, like chewy cookies. It’s as though the fruit has been browned lovingly in the oven. It’s like pumpkin pie filling. It’s like gingerbread dough. It’s like eating the fruit of that tree in Narnia which grew from a piece of toffee someone planted in the ground. I often say that fresh Fat Hen or Good King Henry (one of our favourite wild greens) tastes like spinach with the butter and salt already added to it. If that’s true, then a medlar tastes like medjool dates with the sticky toffee pudding already baked around them.
And with that comparison, fair reader, a delicious idea suggested itself to this forager. If medlar tastes like sticky toffee pudding, why not make a medlar sticky toffee pudding? Sticky toffee squared. So we did.
Medlars aren’t easy to get hold of so, as with many of our wild delights, this sticky toffee medlar pudding will have to remain an occasional treat. But my point is, it’s a treat completely unavailable to those loyal denizens of the supermarket to whom rotten fruit is bad fruit. Even we at The Foragers spend a lot of time thinking of methods of preservation – ways of staving off decomposition. But the cheeky little medlar is a useful reminder that sometimes, just sometimes, it pays to let nature take its course.