Thursday, December 16, 2010

Medlar? What's a Medlar?

A few weeks ago I was at Park Kitchen chatting with Chef Scott Dolich about the sources of his produce and the reliability of local Portland farmers coming through year after year. Scott's a regular customer of Sheldon and Carol Laeity of Your Kitchen Garden in Canby, because they supply their "beyond organic" produce to the Portland restaurant scene almost year-round (all but January) and they provide some unique varieties of greens, veggies, and fruits that you just can't get anywhere else. Another favorite farmer of Scott's is Tremaine Arkley who owns land in Independance, Oregon (just north of Keizer). Tremaine is the source of some of Park Kitchen's more interesting menu items, including these homely little guys. These, my friends, are medlars. When Scott pulled out a canister of these wrinkly things from under his counter, he had this big grin on his face because he knew he was introducing me to something I had never heard of, much less seen.

I get really giddy when I have the chance to learn something new about food, to the point of jumping up and down and making a fool of myself, but Scott was really sweet about it gladly let me smell and taste the medlar fruits while he relayed what little information he had regarding the seemingly alien objects loosely related to pears and apples. Native to the Netherlands, medlars look a bit like crabapples or round figs, and are very aromatic when ripe, and purportedly have a sweet, winey flavor some liken to apple pie and others compare to spiced, overripe plums. Why was the bucket of medlars hidden under the counter of the kitchen? They were literally being left to rot. Before they're ripe to the point of squishiness, medlars are too sour to ingest, but once they start melting away inside their inedible husks, they become almost custard, with a bit of graininess supposedly suited to compotes, chutneys, and in the case of some intrepid chef's kitchens, medlar pies. Traditionally, medlars were left on trees long after the harvest ended, only gathered after the first strong frost had caused the fruit to freeze and thaw in a process known, rather unappetizingly, as "bletting" (much like a modern method of ripening persimmons by putting them in the freezer overnight and letting them return to room temperature). According to David Padberg, chef de cuisine at Park Kitchen, Tremaine's wife planted a few medlar trees after reading about them in a Victorian novel. Medlars grow wild throughout Europe, and have been cultivated by European farmers for millenia, but have never been cultivated extensively in America. Stateside farmers, surprisingly, haven't found a market begging for rotting, gritty, hard-to-handle fruity pebbles.

The more research I did about medlars, the more I realized that they are prized almost exclusively because they are totally weird and no one knows about them. It's kind of a golden ticket of food snobbery, and the inclusion of medlars in professional kitchens is symptomatic of the trend of hyper-local ingredients on restaurant menus. While some chefs might have the "weird stuff" imported from hundred of miles away to be able to boast a certain degree of culinary wizardry, these little guys made their way under the counter at Park Kitchen, pardon the pun, organically. Scott's farmers bring in what they grow, and he finds a way to use them creatively throughout the seasons, by preserving, pickling, and other fors of "putting away." He's not 100% sure what he's going to do with the medlars, but he's looking forward to experimenting once they reach their peak of decay. Until that happy day, it's back under the counter for them.

Interested in trying medlars for yourself? In the Portland area you can find them at People's Food CoOp, maybe a local farmers market, and soon on the menu at Park Kitchen, but outside of the City of Roses I'm afraid you're on your own.

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