grow your own fruit and replenish the culture
The Ecologist, May 2007
I wasn't impressed with medlars the first time I came across them. I can't imagine that anybody is. Picture it: a small, hard, round, brown fruit, utterly inedible until you have let it rot – the preferred term, medlar connoisseurs tell me, is ‘blet’ – for several days. When the bletting is over, the medlar resembles nothing more than ... well, it's probably enough if I tell you that it was referred to by Shakespeare – in his romantic masterpiece Romeo and Juliet no less – as the ‘open arse’ fruit. Mmm. Appetising.
What’s most curious of all though is that, despite all these handicaps, it is actually pretty appetising. Once the bletting is over, this most overlooked of our ancient fruits can make a fantastic jam or a jelly. Or, it can make something called ‘medlar cheese’ – a recipe that was apparently very common in medieval times but is almost extinct in this age of mangosteens and starfruit. It’s not bad at all.
What am I on about? I'm on about fruit. You might think that fruit is just something that happens somewhere else. You might think of gorgeous Mediterranean citruses, golden Indian mangoes, melt-in-the-mouth Caribbean bananas. Then you might wander into your local grocery store and see those moist plastic bags full of tragic, waxed, airfreighted apples and tell yourself sadly that, when it comes to fruit at least, this poor bloody country has nothing to offer the world.
And you would be gloriously wrong. Britain has a stunning panoply of native fruit. Did you know that you could eat a different kind of apple every day for more than six years and still not exhaust the varieties that we can grow in this country? Did you know that our apple season runs all the way through from July to April? Did you know that at least 2000 varieties of apple have been cultivated here? Even this may be an underestimate. Last year I met a man who, from his Buckinghamshire barn, has spent years cataloguing British apple varieties, and who suggests that there may be as many as 6000 in existence – around two thirds of all the varieties in the world.
And while apples may be our most famous and widespread fruit, there are plenty of other choices too: hundreds of varieties of pears, apricots, cherries plums, greengages, nuts and berries. Like so much else, we've lost sight of this over the last half century. Globalisation, supermarket power, exotic tastes, a lack of knowledge about our natural and cultural landscape – you can choose your favourite culprit, but the effect is unquestionable.
The land area used to grow food in the UK has halved in just the last decade, and a number of our native varieties are extinct. Ancient orchards are being torn up daily. Our unique and neglected range of native fruits is on its way out if we don't do something about it.
So let's do something, and let's not confine our efforts to buying shrink-wrapped apples with union jack stickers on them. Let's do the best thing that anyone who wants to preserve and promote these ancient and amazing varieties of fruit can do. Let's plant them.
Hang on, I hear you cry. Let's not get carried away. Where am I supposed to get the land, or the time, let alone the expertise, to start planting an orchard? I may have a few lines of leeks or a windowbox full of herbs, but this is way beyond my capacity.
Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s possible. I have no land at all, and the amount they pay me for these columns is not going to buy me any. Nevertheless, I've got an orchard – a small one anyway. And, should you want one, you can have one too. If you don't, you can least plant a fruit tree or a small bush, even if your garden is no bigger than a postage stamp.
So what are your options? Firstly, if you have a small garden, you can buy yourself some fruit bushes or even a fruit tree. I mentioned in a previous column that it’s possible to grow apple trees in containers – and it is, though it remains better to grow them in the ground. You don't need as much land as you might think to do this, especially if you plant a dwarf variety. Some of the websites below can help you to get going.
If that's still too much, try something smaller. In our garden we have purple gooseberries, blackcurrants, and even blueberries, which grow surprisingly well in pots.
The next step up is an allotment – yours alone, or shared, as discussed last month. This is where I have my trees. With a small group of friends, I tend two allotment plots which are home to about 20 trees – apples, pears, greengages, plums, and, of course, that medlar. Frankly, it's probably a bit overambitious, and I wouldn't recommend anything on this scale unless you really do have time on your hands, or a boundless appetite for fruit. But the point is the principle: it costs 30 quid a year for the ground, and the only other cost is buying the young trees, and the odd bit of compost. Plus – and I can't emphasise this enough – everything is worth it when you get that fruit.
Finally, there's another increasingly popular option: a community orchard. Again, this might sound like something you can only do if you live in an expensive rural idyll, but it's actually something that is increasingly popular in urban areas. Blondin Orchard, in Ealing, was created by the local council in consultation with hundreds of residents, 50 of whom helped plant its 46 trees. Walbottle Community Orchard on Tyneside is popular with local schoolchildren. Bath has two community orchards and in Oxford , where I live, I know there is at least one. Usually they require little more than the perseverance of a few local people, some spare land and a small pot of money.
It doesn’t matter how much or how little you do. What matters is that you can do it: fresh, home-grown fruit can be yours . Whether or not you like the sound of medlars.