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The medlar as metaphor

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11/07/2005
The medlar as metaphor

Sometimes, I think of my potager as an act of defiance. With my feet firmly planted in its fat, dark loam, I can resist a whole horde of enemies. Not only tasteless, hormonally engorged foods, their natural, unique perfumes replaced by the uncertain whiff of chemicals, their appearance as uniformly unblemished and unvariable as a regiment of soldiers, but also the larger plan that they represent. A plan of homogenization, suppression of diversity and individuality, a plan for conformity at a loss of personal control. A plan where all our experiences are narrowed and preprogrammed for the corporation's profit margin, where the pace of our lives is speeded up to the blurring point, where our individual integrity--and that of all beings--is sacrificed to the insatiable, blind gullet of mindless consumption.



Enter the medlar. Mespilus germanica isn't coming to your local supermarket produce department any time soon. Not ever, in fact. The medlar is a fruit so ancient, so resistant to change, so obscure, so not-as-seen-on-TV, and so obdurately slow that it will never fit into any corporate plan. In short, the medlar is just the sort of fruit to interest a rebel like me.

A relative of the apple, the medlar is a smallish tree native from northern Greece eastward and northward to the Caucasus and Iran. It has long, oval glossy leaves and clusters of large white blossoms tinged with pink in mid to late May. The tree is naturalized in France, especially in the southwestern part of the country, where some magnificent ancient hedges of medlar grafted onto native hawthorn are still in existence. Otherwise, it exists in few gardens and orchards. It is often included in medieval gardens, as the medlar, for reasons explained below, was one of the only fruits of winter in the days before we had to have all fruits of the world available to us 365 days of the year. There is a beautiful specimen of medlar in the peripheral border surrounding the potager in the Jardin de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne on Paris' western edge. And there has always been a medlar in my garden.



The medlar's blossoms are followed by its curious fruit, which is so delightfully unfit for mass marketing. About the size of a big native American persimmon, it bears a curious crowned calyx surrounding what appears to be a sort of open navel. Its thick, russeted skin remains dark gray-olive green well into autumn, and the flesh is hard and inedibly astringent until...until it starts to rot. Oh no, forget I said that. Scratch "rot" and substitute "blettir"--a French word that means "to soften by undergoing the initial stages of decomposition." Leave it to the French to find a nice word for this process, which is of course akin to the ripening of a good French cheese.

That's right--you can't enjoy a medlar (la nfle) until after it is blette. This mysterious ripening process occurs in cold regions after the first light frosts. In even-tempered Normandie, where my medlar grows, the 95% of the fruits were blette even without frost a week ago--that is, at the beginning of November. When ready to eat, the medlar's skin turns a deep rich coppery brown beneath its stippling of russet. When squeezed lightly between your fingers, the flesh yields readily under the thick skin.

To eat a medlar, you have to get rid of its skin...and of the 5 rather large seeds contained within the fruit. The easiest way to accomplish this is if you're out by your tree is to peel it with your teeth, then mash the fruit in your mouth, spitting out the seeds. Are you beginning to see why this is a fruit that will never be marketed? We're not talking about the sort of fruit you'd snack on during an office lunch, for example.

What is left after you get rid of the skin and seeds? A curious, soft, non-juicy dark copper pink pulp the color of a bruised apple with a flavor that is complex and subtle. It's like a mixture of apple and pear, with notes of caramel, cider, spice and sweet wine, with a mildly acidic undertone--a mixture of vegetal and bacterial, as the fruit is slightly fermented when it is ready for eating. In fact, as for a fine cheese or a mellow wine, a bit of bacterial action is needed to render the medlar delicious. It's a flavor that you'll need to sample repeatedly to understand and appreciate. The taste of the medlar--like the fruit itself --is not easily accessible. And yet, and yet...once your tongue has deciphered its complexity, you grow to love it.

(To make medlars easy in the kitchen, simply pass the fruits through a food mill. You'll be left with a thick, smooth pulp, ready to be made into medlar jam or 'butter,' or used in artful recipes, such as the carmel-glazed Guinea hen with medlar cream sauce (see Dans la cuisine) which my medlars inspired me to create.)

In southwestern France, the Basque people treasure the medlar for another reason. These fiercely proud people have inhabited the Pyrenees since long before written history, and they speak one of the strangest languages of the world, full of X's in its written form. They are not prone to relinquish their traditions, and among these is that of the makila, a combination walking stick, weapon, and mystical personal icon.



A Basque shepherd was never without his makila during the period of transhumance--the annual migration of herds of tens of thousands of sheep from low-lying farms into alpine pasturages for the summer. The makila steadied his steps in treacherous terrain and served as means of defence against enemies--whether man or beast. But perhaps most important, the makila, inscribed with a short verse of his own symbolism in the arcane Basque language, was a personal icon--one of his few belongings, as familiar and everpresent as his own body.



Making a makila is as slow as the ripening of the medlar fruit. Even slower. The process is a fiercely guarded secret, now practiced by only a handful of traditional artisans and passed down from father to son (or daughter). Only the wood of wild medlars is used, and a tree must be at least 15 years old to produce appropriately vigorous branches. These are selected and pruned, and then the living wood of the branch is decoratively scarified with the point of a knife. The following year, the branch is cut, the bark skinned, and the wood hardened in a fire. Then, over a period of ten years, the branch is alternately soaked in a secret solution, rubbed with pork fat, and aged until the wood assumes a deep russet color and is buttery smooth to the touch. Only then is it ready to be transformed into the work of art that is the makila.



A steel walking stick point is afixed to the far end, while the head of the makila is fitted with a point of another sort entirely--a stiletto blade for self-defense. This is hidden under a pommeau--a rounded handle that screws down to conceal the weapon. The entire handle is in massive silver and is heavily ornamented and engraved with the motto of the future owner's choosing, as well as the date of fabrication. Denis is the proud owner of such a makila.



When you grow a medlar in your own garden, you participate in a small but satisfying way in this ancient tradition. Between you and a Basque shepherd high in a solitary alpine meadow with his flock, there is now a link between the shaft that guides his steps...and you.

When you crush the sweet-sour pulp of the medlar on your tongue, close your eyes and allow its bouquet of subtle flavors to transport you back to a medieval garden, when these fruits were preciously gathered, and carefully stored in layers of clean straw, where they would be stored in the cellar to enjoy during the cold dark months to come. Imagine a time when a handful of medlars on a winter's day constituted a gustatory luxury, not to mention a precious dose of vitamins and minerals to stave off scurvy and other ills. A medlar in your garden can be your own metaphor for your place in the universe, your own infinitesmal thread in the tapestry of human life in relation to nature and time. And your own small but personally significant act of defiance against the homogenization of modern life.



Such were my musings as I gathered my medlars on a recent golden afternoon. As I carried a basket of them toward the kitchen, to my delight I noticed it was crawling with ladybugs! Apparently, the fruits, with their curious 'navel' protected by a bracket of long pointed sepals, made a choice shelter for overwintering coccinelles (ladybugs). I made a mental note to leave some fruits on the tree next year for these friends of the garden. Meanwhile, I carefully transferred the red-and-black denizens of my medlar basket to a rosebush by the front door, where I hoped that between the hips and the leaf litter, they would find a comfortable winter home.


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