The medlar is a curious fruit. They start appearing in the market in November. They are squishy and unappetising-looking but you can’t eat them until they’ve gone very soft (and in fact are just on the turn between ripeness and decay). If you leave them too long, they start to fizz and their flesh goes sour. Eaten at just the right time and they have an amazingly rich depth of taste, like any fruit that has stored and distilled all the goodness of summer (a rosehip, for example, or a raisin). For this reason, they go extremely well with sweet Tokaj wine.
They are fiddly to eat. I’ve tried a number of methods but always come back to the simplest: in the fingers, no cutlery. Just pinch off the peaked tip at the bottom of the fruit and gently squeeze until the thin skin splits. Then squeeze the flesh, pips and all, into your mouth. There are four pips. Suck them clean and spit them out. It’s messy but delicious. And medlars are good for you. They are packed with vitamins and help with all kinds of metabolic functions such as absorbing iron and processing carbohydrate. Excellent winter fare.
Making cornel cherry jelly today. Here they are in the pan, simmering with some roughly cut up apples, the tartest I could find. Cornel cherries (Cornus mas) are a member of the dogwood family. The berries, rich in Vitamin C, ripen in September, which is when I picked them. Since then they have been in the freezer, which might affect the taste of the jelly. Fridges and freezers have a way of turning flavours comatose. We’ll see. It’s a bitingly cold day today, with a wan sun lighting up the few remaining autumn leaves on the hill opposite my window. Slowly the cloud cover is taking over and colours are getting more ashen. It feels like a the right day to be making a bright red, sticky sweet jelly.
The method is easy.
Weigh the berries. Put them, together with an equal weight of roughly chopped apples, into a pan, cover with water and simmer until soft and pulpy. Then comes the laborious bit: straining it through muslin. I line a fine sieve with a cloth and wait for the juice to drip through under its own weight, then give it a good pounding with a spoon to encourage even more to go through. Some particles will escape through this way, but I don’t mind. I even scrape the bottom of the sieve every so often to clear it, so that yet more can get through. This results in a cloudy jelly. But just using the juice that strains through of its own accord seems a terrible waste in terms of the lovely pulp you have to then throw away.
Having said the method is easy, the results are never predictable. Sometimes it sets beautifully. Sometimes it doesn’t. It all depends on the sugar ratio and the pectin in the apples I suppose. Anyway, it tastes good with all kinds of roast meat.
Green lacewings usually appear about this time, looking for somewhere to hibernate. They turn from green to pale brown for the winter, perhaps to make them less conspicuous in the woodpiles and heaps of leaf litter that they SHOULD be over-wintering in. Instead they’ve chosen the kitchen ceiling and as they climb upwards, there are now scores of them clustering around the top rim of it. They moved in en masse during a mild spell last weekend (Nov 5/6). Now the house spiders have noticed them.
The Plumed Prominent (Ptilophora plumigera). A rich chestnut-coloured moth with a fuzzy head. This one, with feathery antennae tucked by the side of its body, is a male (females have non-feathered antennae). It flies late, typically in November (today is November 8th). The larval foodplants are maples and sycamores.
The symbolism of the pomegranate is very old. Persephone ate nothing in Hades but six pomegranate seeds. It meant she had to spend six months of the year with her wintry abductor and was only allowed back up to earth for the other six. The pomegranate came to symbolise fertility and rebirth. You can see them littered symbolically across early Renaissance altarpieces, bursting open to show their rows of seeds. In Istanbul street vendors used to offer pomegranate juice, narli sok, from little itinerant carts. It’s a good few years since I was there. Perhaps they still do, perhaps not. An elderly Turk, living in gloomy self-imposed exile in London, told me last week that they do not. Perhaps that was pessimism.
Anyway, from an old recipe book, I found this Catalan winter salad. The pomegranate traditionally ripes on November 1st, All Saints Day. Or is it November 2nd, All Souls. Whichever it is, this is the recipe:
Take a whole cauliflower, not too large. Rinse and cut away the stem and leaves at the base. Cook until just tender in boiling water to which two teaspoons of vinegar have been added. Remove from water and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, in a salad dish, mix a generous handful of chopped pitted green olives and another of chopped pitted black olives. Add a large fistful of chopped parsley, and the seeds (minus the pith) of half a large pomegranate (or one small one). Cut the cauliflower into small florets and add. Mix gently so as not to break the florets. Add olive oil whisked together with vinegar and salt. Stir again and sprinkle with plenty of freshly-ground pepper.
It’s strangely good.