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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:

Detailed Show Notes! This post expands!

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  • Picture of Medlars on a Tree
  • Medlars being bletted
  • Links to bonus history and articles on openarse/medlars in Shakespeare
  • 1610 edition of The Goodhousewives Jewell by Thomas Dawson
  • Link to a 1598 painting of a medlar
  • Links to places you can buy your own medlar
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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. 🙂