Cider Musings

Medlars and Cider

Mespilus germanica known as the medlar tree is a small pome tree in the rose or Rosaceae family. The fruit of this tree, also called medlar, has been cultivated in Europe since Roman times and available in winter and eaten when belted (or allowed to over ripen).


The English name  derives from the French  Medler, meaning ‘(the fruit of a small fruit-bearing tree’. Prior to this it was called in English by Chaucer Shakespeare and others as the ‘open arse fruit’  or in Old English Openærs  from its remaining open calyx after blossom time. The English must be more coy than the French who call it  “cul de chien” or  in translation: dog's arse.


Its homeland is unclear but likely to be northern Iran region. From there it has been spread by empires. Medlar stones were found in burial sites in France and Switzerland and ancient leaf impressions surfaced at Burgtonna in Germany. Carl Linnaeus must have known this, as in his taxonomy book ’  Species Plantarum (1753) he provides us with the modern binomial name for the medlar, Mespilus germanica, apparently in the belief that it was native to Germany.


In 800AD, Charlemagne included it on a list of 88 plants herbs and trees  that were mandatory in the king's many gardens, see the Capitularies of Charlamagne


Romans brought medlars to England. Medlar stones were found in the Roman dig in Silchester , Hampshire. The first documentary evidence that the fruit was actually cultivated in England comes from the C13th: Westminster Abbey’s gardens were run by Monk Gardeners, responsible for supplying the Abbey with fruit – including medlars.


Around the turn of the last century  the English abbot and writer Ælfric of Eynsham first committed its rather rude sobriquet to the public record.


Despite its appearance it was a well sort after delicacy esp in European winters when food got scare.


Henry VIII helped make medlars fashionable among the nobility. Medlar, pear, damson, cherry and apple trees were planted at Hampton Court. In October 1532, Henry took Anne Boleyn to France, where he met King Francis I at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Among the sumptuous gifts of swans, geese, capons, ducks and larks were large quantities of medlars.


Sir Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, created a garden at Hatfield House early in the 17th Century. He had already obtained medlar, quince, walnut and it is recorded he sent his world famous gardener, John Tradescant, back to buy more stock, including “two great medlar trees” for 4s 0d.




Although rarely know today it’s hard to think it was so widely known that Shakespeare made references to it in 4 plays. Timon of Athens Much ado about Nothing Measure for Measure and here in Romeo and Juliet.  Act II, 1, 34–38

“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.

O Romeo, that she were, O that she were

An open-arse and thou a pop'rin pear!

I will leave it to your imagination as to what the medlar and pear are symbolic of in the speech above by Mercutio 


Prudish censors  have used the Bowdlerised or expurgated edition until recently in education. I certainly didn’t get to read the original txt at school.   Here is a reference to a discussion on the meanings . Reference here 

However not all is tawdry. Medlars were associated with noble quests too. As shown here in this tapestry The Unicorn found 1495-1505 woven probably in Brussels  for French nobility during the Renaissance. Now displayed at The Cloisters, the medieval branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In the tapestry the unicorn kneels before a tall white fountain that has a pair of pheasants and a pair of goldfinches perched on its edge. Other animals both exotic and native to Europe lounge about, while twelve hunters in the back of the scene discuss the discovery of their quarry. Flora and fauna play a significant role in the narratives of the Unicorn Tapestries. Plants prescribed in medieval herbals as antidotes to poisoning, such as sage, pot marigolds, orange and medlar  are positioned near the stream, which is being purified by the unicorn's magic horn.


The medlar was widely grown and eaten in 19th century Britain. Its ubiquity and popularity however declined steeply after WW1, a time of changing habits and tastes. Possibly because medlars require time and effort to make ready to eat or use. The process is called bletting - letting the fruit get over ripeness, although the fruit is not actually “rotten” it certainly appears to be if you don’t know what you are looking at. As an aside OED's only evidence for blet is from 1835, in the writing of John Lindley, botanist and horticulturist who borrowed it from the French. That “rotten look” is not one that makes people want to fill their bags in the produce aisle.  However, it is this bletting process that releases the fruit’s fragrance and flavour and enables the medlar to attain that soft and juicy apple butter texture need to press the juice from. In 1989, one American academic wrote that "probably not one in a hundred" botanists had seen a medlar. Today it's not sold at a single English  supermarket. Where there are still plants growing in public spaces, they often go unrecognised and are left to rot on the ground. Although they are still enjoyed in the Republic of Türkiye

Although I cannot find English evidence of medlars being added to cider there is a German reference in this German Encyclopaedia from 1806 had the following to say on the matter.

“We know from experience that cyder can be improved by other kinds of fruit, and that it really is improved by them. And why should one not be able to improve and increase a less pleasant wine by means of a pleasant wine, and a less spirited one by means of a very spirited one? In any case, the fruits of the trees which are to be used for this purpose must not be bad, but perfectly ripe and good. The most excellent fruits, which one is accustomed to mix with apples, are: Sorbs, Medlars, Sloes, Blueberries and Blackberries”.

In Oeconomische Encyclopädie (Economic Encyclopaedia for Agriculture, House and State Economy),

So as a way to add tannins, Germany does not having any tannic apples.

I am sure they were added. In the C17th all sorts of fruits were added for colour flavour or to improve the cider.

So at TeePee Cider we are re inventing an old custom. We grow our own medlars 

We add 5%  medlar juice to 100L cider. It adds harder tannins that Devon cider apples but with a floral note. Last years medlar cider was really rather nice! 

 This years crop bletting in a cool place 

Once blett they will be scratted and pressed, the juice then added to a barrel of this years cider. 

Information from a variety of sources but with a special thanks to Barry Masterson of Kertelreiter cider for the German information.