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Medlar: The Medieval Fruit With a Rude Name

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The medlar fruit displaying the characteristic that has led to its colloquial name.

The medlar fruit displaying the characteristic that has led to its colloquial name.

Fruit Named After a Certain Body Part

The medlar fruit is said to taste a little like apples with a hint of cinnamon. It was highly popular in the Middle Ages, a time when earthyness was common in the language. So it was that the people looked at the fruit and saw a resemblance to a certain body part, specifically the anus; the fruit became known as the “open arse.” (The spelling is British and correct, whereas the American spelling of “ass” is incorrect because it actually refers to a member of the horse family).

There, it’s been said.

Surprising Seed Find

Let’s visit Eschern in northeastern Switzerland. It’s 2010, and a team of archaeologists is excavating what was called Tasgetium during the Roman occupation almost 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists get to do a lot of fun things such as poking about in ancient cesspits. They do so because the contents can reveal a lot about social customs and what people ate. It was while excavating the Roman midden in Eschern that researchers from the University of Basel found something unusual―19 seeds that nobody recognized.

It turns out they were from medlar fruit that “is now so obscure, it can baffle even professional botanists (BBC).” We can unbaffle those boffins by turning to Economic Botany for some useful terminology. That’s where we find that the fruit is known in France as la partie postérieure de ce quadrupede (the posterior part of this quadruped), cu d’singe (monkey’s bottom), cu d’ane (donkey’s bottom), and cul de chien (dog’s bottom).

Shakespeare used an Anglicized version, open arse, in Romeo and Juliet, while D.H. Lawrence went with “autumnal excrementa” in a poem. How delightfully lyrical.

Medlars are seen in the centre of this Caravaggio painting from 1593.

Medlars are seen in the centre of this Caravaggio painting from 1593.

The Travels of Medlars

The plant is native to Western Asia and the Middle East and that’s where the Romans found it when that area was part of its empire.

They brought it to Europe enabling those lucky archaeologists to find the seeds in a Swiss outhouse almost two millennia later.

The tree likes warm summers and mild winters so it fared pretty well as far north as southern England. It can grow to eight metres (26 feet) tall but mostly it’s more shrub-like. In the spring, the plant is covered by five-petal white flowers, the precursors to the fruit that appears later in the year.

Eating Medlars

England’s Henry VIII was a man of massive appetites, but it seems he wasn’t over fond of getting his seven to ten servings a day of fruits and veggies. A dedicated meatatarian was Henry; chowing down on a haunch of venison was his style rather than eating a salad. That said, Henry had medlars planted at Hampton Court, so it seems he at least ate this fruit.

However, you can’t just go into the orchard, pick a medlar fruit, and start munching on it. They are hard and bitter and can make a person sick. But, after they’ve been left to soften for a few weeks they are edible; this is where we meet the term “bletting.”

Read More From Delishably

Food columnist Nigel Slater explains that after he harvests the fruit from the tree in his garden he leaves the crop “in a cool place for a few weeks . . . Once their skins are purplish-black, their flesh is soft and they smell slightly ‘winey’, they are ready.” This is the process of bletting, which is, perhaps, a less distasteful word than rotting.

The decaying process turns the astringent fruit into a sweet one with a complex flavour

At this point, the squishy fruit pulp can be eaten raw or made into a jelly that goes well with meat, especially game.

Why Are Medlars Rare Today?

There’s that rotten fruit thing that turns off a lot of people. Even in the heyday of medlar popularity there were some who refused to test its enticing flavours. One anonymous gourmet from the medieval period opined that “the medlar is not . . . worth a turd until it’s ripe, and then it tastes like shit.”

Today’s consumers find the fruit is too much of a fiddle to compete with the convenience of apples, bananas, oranges, and the like. Back in the days when rich folk had kitchen staff with the time to go through the process of making medlars edible they were readily available.

Also, picking medlars is best done in December and few people are motivated to be out in cold, inclement weather plucking open arses from branches; cutting up a fresh pineapple in a warm kitchen has far greater appeal.

The decline in popularity has led to a decline in availability. You will never find medlars in the fruit section of Piggly Wiggly or Tesco. The only chance of snagging some is from someone who has a medlar in their garden or, rarely, at a farmer’s market.

However, if you go to places such as Iran, Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan you’ll be able to pick up the fruit in many markets.

Some people are working to revive the medlar from obscurity in Europe. One of them is Jane Steward who has planted an orchard of medlars in England. She produces medlar jelly for sale in specialty stores.

Jane Steward Medlar Conservationist

Bonus Factoids

  • The Colorado Orange apple was thought to be extinct until a couple, Addie and Jude Schuenemeyer, found a tree in 2017. The apple had fallen out of favour with the public when the red delicious hit the market in 1900. The Schuenemeyers have propagated several trees and given specimens to farmers to grow.
  • According to Germany’s Federal Office for Agriculture and Food, three quarters of the vegetables grown between 1836 and 1956 have become extinct.
  • The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway “holds more than 1,000,000 samples, originating from almost every country in the world.” The aim is to safeguard the genetic biodiversity of the plant world against collapse.
Medlar blossoms

Medlar blossoms

Sources

  • “First Evidence of Mespilus Germanica L. (Medlar) in Roman Switzerland.” Britta Pollman and Stefanie Jacomet, researchgate.net, January 2011.
  • “The Medlar (Mespilus Germanica, Rosaceae) from Antiquity to Obscurity.” John R. Baird and John W. Thieret, Economic Botany, September 1989.
  • “Nigel Slater on... Medlars.” Royal Horticultural Society, undated.
  • “The Forgotten Fruit that Looks Like an Anus.” Anne Ewbank, Atlas Obscura, January 16, 2018.
  • “The Forgotten Medieval Fruit with a Vulgar Name.” Zaria Gorvett, BBC, March 25, 2021.
  • “Medlars: the ‘Open Arse’ Fruit that Could Be Making a Comeback.” Julia Platt Leonard, The Independent, June 30, 2017.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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