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Strange Fruit

I returned from Herstmonceux Medieval Festival yesterday afternoon. After a rather quicker journey (including a pub lunch) than on the outward leg, which took 6 hours thanks to one of the tyres on the trailer disintegrating en route.

The event had actually finished on Monday, but rather than frantically packing up after the long weekend, then driving home with eyelids drooping to collapse in an exhausted heap late at night, we stopped over. I am very glad that we did, as it afforded me the opportunity to stroll around the beautiful gardens in the glorious morning sunshine. (The rest of the family had seen it all already – as they aren’t working, they get more time to wander about). Sadly, the castle wasn’t open – in all the years I have been going to the festival, I have never actually managed to find the time to look inside.

The gardens are wonderful, ranging from secluded little woodland “rooms” to lawns, via intricate herb gardens,  filled with sundials and statues. The most novel of these was the Shakespeare garden with quotes from his works referencing the various fruits and herbs arranged in geometric Box-edged beds. It was here amid the fennel, apple, pomegranate, rue, rosemary, daisies and pansies, among others, that I found the quince (right) and medlar (left)…

Hold, take these keys and fetch more spices, nurse.
Nurse. They call for dates and quinces in the pastry.
(Romeo and Juliet)

I’ll graff it with you, and then I shall graff it with a
medlar. Then it will be the earliest fruit i’ th’ country; for
you’ll be rotten ere you be half ripe, and that’s the right
virtue of the medlar
. (As You Like It)

I must admit that I..ahem…acquired a sample of each, since they are not exactly common on the supermarket shelves these days. It may well be my only chance to sample them. Curious that such common English fruits are now considerably more foreign to us than exotics like kiwi and sharron fruit. The big question, of course, is what one is supposed to do with them.

The excellent Dorothy Hartley in Food in England has only a little to say about Medlars. The Shakespeare quote is actually quite a good guide, since it transpires that they are to be left until brown and soft (i.e., rotten) before consumption. Hartley suggests scraping out the pulp and mixing it with cream and brown sugar or baking them for a few minutes in a dish with butter and cloves like roast apples, both of which sound rather nice. She has rather more to say on the subject of Quinces and recipes include 12th c. Quince Honey, Marmalade, 14th c. pie and several 18th c. puddings and even Quince Comfits, a type of dried fruit sweet. I’m not sure I have enough Quince to make most of these, unfortunately, but may be able to come up with something.

I will report back.

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1 September 2010