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Five times in Shakespeare’s works he refers to a specific plant called a Medlar. In As You Like It, Rosalind talks about grafting a medlar, Lucio talks about a rotten medlar in Measure for Measure, Mercutio uses the medlar tree to describe Romeo’s state of mind in Romeo and Juliet and the last two references to medlars are found in Timon of Athens when Apemantus both presents a medlar for eating, and questions whether someone hates medlars. Whether or not we should hate or love the medlar fruit is the subject of our show today. Our guest this week and author at British Food History.com, Neil Buttery, is in the studio with us today to share the history of this plant, what it looks and tastes like, as well as what it would have been used for in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

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Neil Buttery is a food historian, chef, author, blogger, podcaster and scientist, who has been obsessed with historical and traditional British food since he began writing his food blogs in 2007 in an effort to improve his writing for his PhD in ecology & evolutionary biology. Ecology lost out in the end, eventually leaving science to pursue a career in food, first holding regular pop-up restaurant events, then a real restaurant. These days, however, he is kept busy writing about and studying (and eating!) food history for his books, and popular blogs and podcast. He has a particular love of offal and puddings. Neil’s latest book, a Dark History of Sugar, is out now and available wherever books are sold. We’ll include direct links to Neil’s work and his latest book in the show notes for today’s episode.

I'll be asking Neil Buttery about:

  •  How are medlars grown and cultivated?
  • Are medlars considered stone fruits?
  • Are medlars native to England?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Neil Buttery recommends:

A Dark History of Sugar by Neil Buttery

Jane Grigson's Fruit Book (Yes, it is actually called “Fruit book”. It's a companion to Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book)

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David

Food in England by Dorothy Hartley (This is Neil's desert island selection)

Neil Buttery at British Food History has written several articles on the history of medlars and exploring historic recipes using medlars. See some of his work here.

Related Books That Might be of Interest:


“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.”

— Rosalind, As You Like It (III.2)

Bletting begins on one side of the fruit. Bletted flesh is brown; ripe but unbletted flesh is white. | The normal ripening process (bletting) begins in just part of the fruit. | 2 December 2012, 17:10:07 | Image by Nadiatalent | CCASA 3.0 | Source

Medlar Trees Are Not Native to England

Medlar trees look like large bushes, and they grow very well. They are considered very hardy trees that produce a lot of fruit. As Neil explains, “Medlars are in the same group of fruit trees that belong to apples and pears, so they are grown as a tree or s shrub and can sometimes be in hedge rows if it’s old enough.”

If you have never seen a medlar in person (as, indeed, at the time of writing this episode, I have not either), Neil helpfully provides a description of what they look like when you cut them open to eat them:

[When you] Slice into a medlar, there’s 6 pips lined up in a circle, and they are larger than an apple. Different varieties have different sizes, but the one that’s grown in England and France traditionally are about more than a half inch in diameter, the whole fruit, and they are oval squished circle shape of a greeny brown. There’s a russet apple in England, rough/green brown apple, and has that rough skin is called russetted rough skin. 

Medlars are not native to England. Neil explains that like many fruits, they were introduced to England and then took off from there. Neil explains that it was the Romans who we have to thank for brining medlars to England:

No, like most fruits, they were introduced to England. Started off in the near East, not quite sure but probably Egypt and Mediterranean area. It was picked up by the Romans, and when the Romans conquered England, they brought the the medlar with them, so first-4th century. They used to be called Old English name called open-arse. 


“If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark. Now will he sit under a medlar tree, And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.”

— Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet (II.1)

Medlars Were Originally Called “Open-Arse”

In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio is well known for his— shall we say prowess?—with dirty jokes and references. His use of the phrase “open-arse” not just in a small dropping of a ripe innuendo, but of his ongoing speech related to making an absolutely obscene reference to the fruit and its' double meaning.

I blush just to try and write this out for you, so I will defer to the great Stanley Wells in his book, Shakespeare, Sex, and Love (Side note, this book is available on Amazon for just $7 as of the moment I'm writing this piece). Here's what Sir Stanley says about open-arse:

“Open-arse” is a dialect word for the ripe fruit of the medlar tree, known in French as “fruit de trou de cul”—open-arse fruit—which is not ripe until it is rotten. Interestingly, the word does not occur in any of the early texts of the play. When Romeo and Juliet first appeared in print, in the corrupt text of 1597, the passage substituted a euphemism, “open Et caetera,” in an early example of censorship. When this edition was reprinted in 1599, apparently from a different manuscript, the typesetter printed “open,or,” which modern editors interpret as a misreading of “open ars”; this is also printed in the 1623 Folio. Not until Richard Hosley’s edition on 1957 was what is now generally regarded as the true reading restored. An “open-arse” is often said to resemble an open vagina, but this may be an evasion of an implication that Mercutio is accusing Romeo of wishing to take Rosaline anally.

Thank You to the blog Shakesyear for providing this quote and more history on medlars in Shakespeare.

Phew! That Mercutio has a potty mouth. Now you can better understand why editors of Shakespeare's original work were so keen to sanitize Mercutio's language here by using “medlar” instead of “open-arse” for hundreds of years after Shakespeare wrote it. I guess we should be giving Shakespeare himself the side-eye for this kind of talk, but then again, such was the kind of performances he was known for setting on stage. This kind of rough, bawdy, humor was par for the course at theaters like The Globe and the Curtain.

There is a great portrait of medlars contemporary to Shakespeare's lifetime from French artist Jacques le Moyne de Morgues (1598) but I am unable by the time of writing this episode to find a public domain version of the image. You can view it here. This particular artist is famous for his still life paintings, many of which include medlars so it is worth looking into his repertoire if you enjoy still life of medlars.


“There's a medlar for thee, eat it.”

— Apemantus, Timon of Athens (IV.3)

“Three Medlars with a Butterly” by Adriaen Coorte, circa 1705 (as a side note, I believe that's a moth.) This image is part of a private collection. The picture I am using here comes from Wikimedia and is in the public domain. | Source

Medlars in the Fruit Industry

In As You Like It, Rosalind offers a pretty elaborate grafting with a tree description, including a brief conversation with Touchstone about trees yielding bad fruit. In our conversation with Neil, we explore the industry of growing fruits and it turns out that mixing plants to try and create various attributes you liked about plants (or even to create an optimal version of a single plant) was popular in Tudor times.

Prehistoric man was grafting fruit tress, so even in Shakespeare’s time there was quite a vintage. When Shakespeare was writing his plays, it’s just the decades running up to the agricultural revolution where people are interested in breeding all kins of fruits and animals. People wanted a good variety of fruit that could grow in a variety of climates (Kent vs Highlands of Scotland) and there was a lot of work going into crossing species of plants and strains but the problem is that when you pollenate an apple tree, and you get the apples from the seed, you have to breed them, but of course there’s natural variations, so there’s a shuffling to the genome among offspring. And when you find a tree that’s delicious, you want to graft that one and reproduce asexually and grow that on a root stalk. People got really into this and it’s amazing actually, with the stone fruits (cherries, plums, apples) you can cross graft those happily and people would graft several types of fruit trees onto one fruit tree, so you’d have one tree with 5-6 species of fruit growing in it.


“Dost thou hate a medlar?”

— Apemantus, Timon of Athens (IV.3)

This image is a screenshot of Neil's blog post about “Forgotten Fruits: Openarses” He cites the book, Good Housewives Jewel by Thomas Dawson, and points out that Dawson was a contemporary of Shakespeare.

Medlars for Your Garden and Kitchen

Medlars were traditionally given as a jam at Christmastime in the 19th century. For Shakespeare's lifetime, they were popular for a decidedly more practical reason: they lasted a long time and could sustain your intake of Vitamin C over winter months when growing fresh fruit was difficult. Neil explains:

It’s not a modern fruit you can pick off the tree or fruit bowl and chomp down on it like an apple. First of all if you pick them when they look like they might be ready, it’s extremely sour and astringent and there’s no dominant flavor. The trick with a medlar is you have to let it (and if you can, let it do this on the tree where it’s best, ( but you have to let it get over ripe, some people say rotten, and that’s a little unfair, [as it is] not rotten, but it’s over ripe and and it gets very squashy, you mash it between your fingers and suck out the flesh from inside and every now and again you get a pip, a seed, and it tastes like a cross between a sour apple, prunes, and dates. Caramelly flavors, fresh. 

Neil expresses his own love of medlars while also housing that affection in an understanding that the overripe fruit isn't to everyone's taste. The best comparison seems to be a rotten banana. You know, the ones that you are not enticed to eat yourself but you think might make excellent banana bread? (Well, maybe that's just me.) Apparently, if you're a fan of overripe bananas, then you ought to give medlars a try.

A borrowed frontispiece and the title page, 1610 edition of The Goodhousewives Jewell by Thomas Dawson. | Public Domain | Source

For Shakespeare's lifetime, the love of medlars seems to have been just as controversial and divided. They weren't held in as much disdain as prunes, perhaps, but in the 16th century, the medlar was considered more necessary than it was considered enjoyable.

No body’s favorite fruit, they were ok, but they were very important. We are still coming out of the medieval era, not quite to agricultural revolution so we still have fasts and famines, and when it comes to winter/spring there’s a hunger gap and there’s not fresh fruit. YOu could make preserves, but it gets rid of the Vitamin C to do that, and in February March there’s not much fresh fruit, but good old medlars, you can harvest them and keep them somewhere cool, and because they take a long time to blet, you can keep them through the hunger gap and always have some vitamin C through a wintertime. 

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We talk in the podcast with Neil about how to grow your own medlar and Neil suggests, particularly if you are in England, that your own back garden (that's a section of your backyard for those of you in the US), is a great place to plant one of the trees. They grow in England now, so you should be able to locate on there, or at least one that someone near you might share. However, if you're looking to find some medlars yourself, I was able to locate a few places that have them online. Remember these links are ones I found at the time of producing this episode, so depending on when you are reading this article the links might not be current. A good backup plan in that event is to simply search “Where to buy a medlar tree near me” and you should pull up some good options. In the meantime, here are some I found for you:

Be careful not to let anyone sell you a persimmon tree or a loquat tree. Both of these can be confused for medlars, but they aren't the same fruit. Look for the Latin name “Mespilus Germanica” to be sure you're getting the kind of fruit Shakespeare talks about in his plays.

Many of these nurseries only ship in certain times of year, too (generally Spring), so do some checking on what works best for your area of the world. If you're in the Southern Hemisphere, for example, you might need to have a greenhouse plan for your new arrival until the weather warms up enough to plant it outside.

https://www.tytyga.com/Medlar-Trees-s/1858.htm

This nursery sells medlar trees as well, and as of the time of writing this one they have a few left! Though their website says “ends at the end of Spring” which is soon. They also suggest that USDA Hardiness Zones of 4-9 are the only ones suitable for growing medlar trees outdoors. You'll need to check your area for whether you can grow this plant where you are or if you'll need a greenhouse.

If you grow and plant your own medlar tree, please let me know! I am so excited to see little pieces of Shakespeare's history take root in the wild. 🙂