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.
(As You Like It: Act III, Sc 2, lines 89-92)
Lady Capulet: Hold, take these keys and fetch more spices, nurse.
Nurse. They call for dates and quinces in the pastry.
(Romeo and Juliet: Act IV, Sc 4)
Sometimes life gives me a kick to get a point across. Most of the time I have my head so full of words and my eyes so often on the pages of a book that I miss out on the real world. I got a very pleasant wake up call the other day.
My wife and I found ourselves in the Fold in Bransford in Worcestershire. I’d been there before to give a talk at the Wrekin Forum and was rather taken then with the feel of the place and the food in the eco-cafe there. So much so it seemed the most obvious thing in the world to turn into their drive once more as we were passing just when the urge for coffee was cranking up to fever pitch.
This time I had leisure to look round. I ought to mention at this point that my powers of observation are such that when my wife moves the furniture around at home while I am out, I generally fail to notice anything unusual until I come to sit down on a chair that is no longer where it was. It was my wife therefore who spotted a tree with what at first looked like giant pears. Closer inspection revealed them to be rock hard: definitely not a pear then.
It was in one of the shops on site that the mystery was solved. In two glass bowls on the table were more of these massive fruits. The owner explained they were not pears but quinces. The only way you could be absolutely sure they were ripe was to cut them open to see if the pips were brown. If they were not you’d have wasted a quince.
He drew our attention also to the tree near the cafe. He said people often confuse quinces with medlars. The tree he was pointing to had medlars and they were nothing like a quince. In both cases though, you do not eat them raw but make them into pickles or fruit jellies, it seems. For a brilliant explanation of what to do with these fruits to make them edible, see the link at the bottom of the post. Tatanya Valda Belinda Hill makes clear the connection with rotting that so disgusted Shakespeare:
They are harvested in November – preferably after a good frost – and left to mature for several weeks until nearly rotten, before being used. This uncommon process is termed “bletting.”
It is only forty-five years since I began to read Shakespeare and first met references to quince and medlar, the latter giving an easy opportunity for punning about meddlers as Timon of Athens shows:
Apemantus: There’s a medlar for thee; eat it.
Timon. On what I hate I feed not.
Apemantus. Dost hate a medlar?
Timon. Ay, though it look like thee.
Apemantus. An thou hadst hated meddlers sooner, thou shouldst have loved thyself better now.
(Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene 3, lines 321-323)
It’s so easy to go drifting along for years like this, not bothering too much to relate what you read to reality. Footnotes don’t help much. Take even the beautifully produced RSC edition for instance. The footnote to the As You Like It quote reads in part: “Medlar: tree bearing applelike fruits . . .” (page 500). That’s not even an accurate description let alone one that captures the magic of the look and feel of these fruits. Hill puts it far better in the post below: ‘They remind me of huge make-believe rosehips, the type which might be in Alice’s Wonderland.’
The price of that kind of oblivion can be high though. In this case I had failed to find for years the unusual beauty that was suddenly made so obvious to me – the vibrant brown of the medlars and the lemon-yellow glow of the quinces gleaming in the autumn sunlight has to be seen to be believed: the photographs don’t do the colours justice at all. (It didn’t help that I was brought up in a town, where conkers were for many years the full measure of my direct experience of what a tree can produce.)
Even so, this particular disconnect was not such a huge price to pay for my habitual introspection. But in other areas it can be far more costly not to test words against felt experience. This goes back to the left-brain versus right-brain tussle and the need to match reflection with action – issues I’ve dealt with before. Basically the best map in the world is no substitute for a good walk over the terrain itself.
I’m hopeful I might get the balance right before I have to move onto fresh woods and pastures new with altogether different sorts of medlars to contend with.