Prince and Pedlar: Forgotten Fruit

Ripening in the garden this afternoon are the last of the ‘White Marseille’ figs (Ficus carica); the first, and therefore somewhat miraculous, harvest for 14 years. On either side of the fig are the fruiting canes of the pink, seedless ‘Reliance’ grape (Vitis vinifera) and in the front garden, a handful of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) berries that survived the drought earlier in the year are developing their burgundy shine. The honeyberries (Lonicera caerulea) and pinkberries (actually a pink blueberry, Vaccinium ‘Pink Lemonade’) also fruited for the first time this year and there were a even couple of mulberries  on the juvenile ‘Charlotte Russe’ (developed from Morus rotundiloba), although I have to say I’m still unconvinced about their quality in terms of flavour.


When I saw these figs I could hardly believe they were real

We had a fair apple harvest from our espalier ‘James Grieve’ and ‘Egremont Russet’, although ‘Bountiful’ and ‘Fiesta’ sulked all spring and produced not one blossom. The plum (Prunus domestica ‘Opal’) had a successful year and the greengage (Prunus domestica subsp. italica ‘Cambridge Gage’) also produced a good harvest, although due to poor timing on our part we were away when the fruit ripened and on our return all that remained were a series of wasps’ bottoms poking provocatively out of each syrupy gage.

DSC_0081 (2).JPG

After 13 quinces last year, this haul was an utter delight

Quantity of Quince

But the delight of the year has been the success of our appealingly dishevelled quince tree (Cydonia oblonga), the aptly named ‘Meeches Prolific’. A couple of weeks ago, at five years old, it delighted us all with a harvest of around 100-150 small fruits, picked by my husband and daughter, each quince carefully handed down from the tree and placed reverently in a bucket which it soon became clear was far too small for the seemingly limitless supply hidden beneath the foliage. The quince harvest alone made my year in the garden complete. My only regret, fruit-wise, is the lack of space for that king of trees – the medlar.


The medlars in the community garden are cropping well this autumn

Meeting Medlars

I first discovered medlars when I moved down to Hertfordshire in 2003. Until that moment my fruit aspirations went no further than childhood memories of my dad’s ‘Laxton’s Superb’ apple trees, bilberries foraged on the Welsh mountains and the loganberry – a fruit that attained an almost mythic status in my memory as the sweetest food on earth when eaten warm from Aunty Florence’s garden, the berries almost as big as my mouth. But I’d never encountered anything like the medlar. Here was a fruit that offered neither immediate candied delight, nor vibrant hues; a fruit whose dun, leathery skin seemed a deliberate indication of its disinclination to be eaten. I was intrigued.


A most unassuming fruit

The tree stood in the corner of my friends’ new garden – a modest, rather overgrown patch with unexpected treasures lurking at the back of each brimming border. Their area has a rich horticultural history: situated on the borders of a medieval park dating from before 1380, then developed into a town pleasure garden in the 18th century. With the cottages and gardens themselves dating back to 1820s and 30s, theirs was a historically interesting garden with dynamic borders full of flowers and fruit – redcurrants, damsons, gooseberries, blackberries, quince, raspberries, rosemary, campanula, hollyhocks and clematis.

The garden in winter and with spring blossom (Image credit: Lindsay Cook)

I was attracted to the story behind this garden and the questions behind the design – who had planted with this balanced purpose of beauty and productivity – and what had the garden meant to them? Why had they chosen the majestic medlar as the cornerstone of the garden and what did they do with the fruits? The garden and its medlar tree ignited my interest in unconventional fruits and the stories that they can tell. We harvested the medlars in the garden for several years, bletting the fruits, watching the disintegration of the skins as the not-quite rotting took place and savouring the smoky date-apple flavours of the jellies and cheeses that we produced using methods that have been around for hundreds of years.

20161006_134630 (2)

Beautiful, yet the undignified butt of many an ancient joke

Ancient Fruit

Both quinces and medlars were once popular fruit in the UK. In 1629 John Parkinson, Royal Botanist to Charles I, lists three varieties of medlars and six of quince in his study of plant cultivation, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris. Gervase Markham (1568-1637) has advice for both ‘husbandmen’ and ‘housewives’ regarding storing and cooking these fruit. Husbandmen should ‘gather [medlars] about the midst of October after such time as the frost hath nipt and bitten them’ and lay them in ‘thicke woollen cloathe, and about the cloathes good store of hay, & someother waight of boards’ to heat them and bring them to a ‘perfect rottenesse.’ Quinces, on the other hand, should be stored away from other fruit ‘because their sent is so strong and piercing, that it will enter into any fruit, and cleane take away his naturall rellish’.

DSC_0038 (2).JPG

One of the joys of growing quinces is their pale, cupped blossom in mid spring

In The Well-Kept Kitchen, as well as advising housewives in matter of religion, temperance, dress sense and their knowledge of gardening, Markham also includes instruction in the art of  making quince conserve, preserve, cake, paste and marmalade. 200 years later Eliza Acton continues the tradition with her recipes for quince juice, custard, jellies and marmalade, whilst Isabella Beeton’s 1860s recipes for medlar jelly and mebrillo (quince cheese) are the ones we use in our kitchen today.

DSC_0039 (2)

Quince cheese – a special autumn treat

Soup Tales

Many years ago at university I bought Soup & Beyond by the New Covent Garden Soup Company – an exploratory cookery book for which we were required to ditch our student staples of chicken, pasta and cheese, and explore hitherto unknown ingredients like dill, lovage, buckwheat and buttermilk. One of the recipes for prince and pedlar soup looked intriguing, but I was at a loss to source the strange fruits so as I worked my way through the other recipes the prince and the pedlar remained uncooked, forgotten for the last twenty years. Yesterday, with huge piles of quince fragrantly ripening in boxes in the kitchen I remembered the old recipe and unearthed the soup book. 

IMG_4802 (2)

The downy coating on an unripe quince disappears as it ripens

The Taste of History

IMG_20181020_193332 (2).jpg

Prince and Pedlar Soup finally in the flesh

Supper is now served: a warm yellow soup with a silky texture and a mellow sweet and sour flavour that reminds me of parsnip and orange. I’ve made cheese bread, so we’re all sorted for the evening. Whether your taste is for soups, jellies, poached fruit, marmalade or membrillo, quinces and medlars have so much potential and they deserve to be remembered.

What are your favourite autumn fruit recipes? Do you have any special quince and medlar concoctions? If so, please leave me a comment so that I can try them too. Thank you.

15 thoughts on “Prince and Pedlar: Forgotten Fruit

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Not many people grow quinces here anymore! Mine are copies of a tree that I grew up with in the Santa Clara Valley. I do not know the cultivar, but it could be Portuguese. (I do not really care.) It seems that only older people of Portuguese, Italian, Spanish or Mexican descent remember them. There used to be many more of us in the Santa Clara Valley.
    Medlars are completely absent from our region! It is something that I intend to grow when I rework the orchard. However, I am hesitant to introduce something that is not a traditional fruit from the Santa Clara Valley. There are too many fruit trees already. I will do it anyway!

      • tonytomeo says:

        The Santa Clara Valley was formerly famous for fruits and nuts. (There is no need to comment on that.) Most of the fruit that we grew up with was from the orchards. There was not much need to plant other fruit trees in home gardens. Some of the quinces were added by the Portuguese and Mexican, and were shared with others. However, most were not intentionally planted. They grew from the understock of pear orchard trees, and were just sort of ‘discovered’. I do not know why medlars were never popularized here, but it may be because they were never grown in the orchards. There are many fruits that never became popular here. For example, we have no paw paws or black elderberries. When I started using the native blue elderberries, no one knew that they were the same as black elderberries!

        • dogwooddays says:

          I wonder how many other quinces in the world originated from grafted understocks? Interesting that you grow Sambucus cerulea – not an elder I’ve ever grown, although we do have Sambucus canadensis in the forest garden. Do you grow this species too?

          • tonytomeo says:

            Red elderberry is not as well flavored as black elderberry is. It is also quite toxic if not cooked (not that anyone would eat them fresh of the shrub. Ick!) Some of the ornamental cultivars of the various elderberries do not product much fruit anyway. (Black Lace is grown for very dark foliage, and is supposed to make a good crop of berries, but I have never seen more than just a few berries on it.) However, for those who do no mind the toxicity of the uncooked fruit and the inferior flavor, red elderberry can be used like black elderberry for jelly and syrup. Blue elderberry is comparable to black elderberry; and some would say that it is the same.

  2. Catherine Wakely says:

    This looks really interesting! My only experience of medlar trees is the one at Hatfield House.

    Our favourite thing at this time of year in our house is crumble. You can’t beat a hot crumble with custard on a chilly autumn day 😀

    • dogwooddays says:

      I didn’t realise there was a medlar at Hatfield House – is it an old one? I agree that an apple crumble on a cold day is a wonderful thing – also apple sponge is a winner and easy to do gluten free with ground almonds!

  3. lindsayccook says:

    I have very fond memories all those years ago of trying to work out what that weird fruit in our garden was, discovering the word ‘blett’ and eating medlar cheese and other yummy stuff x

  4. Eileen Garner says:

    How good to be reminded of these fruits. Our quince tree is less than 20 years old, and we have picked over 100 fruits so far, and there are more than 200 still on.
    A lot of them are fairly small. I was concerned that they might be going rotten, as they did last year after splitting, but it is only the brown fur on them which easily brushes off. We are adding a couple to each batch of stewed Apple we are doing, and going to poach some. We will store some and offer to neighbours and friends.
    As a society, can we change our mindset to make time for local and garden food growing, collection and preparation? I can vouch the results are yummy, as I sit eating a piece of quince cheese that tastes like lovely Turkish Delight with a twist!

    • dogwooddays says:

      How lovely that you have so many quinces to share with the community. I agree that growing, harvesting and cooking with local and home grown fruit and vegetables is one of the joys of life and a fabulous way to come together as a family or community. It also encourages youngsters to get involved and passes skills on to the next generation. Enjoy the Turkish Delight!

  5. LordJuss says:

    I like any fruit that you can make a jelly out of and the fact that they are unusual and relics of earlier times mean that quince and medlar tick all my boxes!

    • dogwooddays says:

      Yes, you do feel connected to older times when you cook with quinces and medlars, especially when exploring some of the older, more unusual recipes. Someone kindly sent me a medlar sticky toffee pudding recipe on my Facebook page today – I can’t wait to try that one out once bletting is complete! 😊

  6. Alan Garner says:

    What a fascinating article; an interesting mix of personal narrative, research and recipe ideas. Last year I moved to a property with apple, plum, damson, quince, walnut and cobnuts in the garden. The quince (which I have never grown nor used before) cropped heavily but all the fruits split badly while on the tree and were discarded. Having read your article, I am determined to do something with this year’s crop. Thank you for the inspiration.

    • dogwooddays says:

      Really glad you found it interesting – they are fruits with a long and fascinating history. Good luck with the quinces this year – I’ve had several recipes sent to me this week on my Facebook page and via Twitter. One gardener is making quince wine and others cooking jellies and cheeses. My favourite was the medlar sticky toffee pudding which someone suggested. That’s one I’m definitely trying!! 😊

Leave a Reply