After reading about the Westfield Academy and Central School's eighth grade language arts class taught by Melissa Putney and their recent very impressive projects surrounding "William Shakespeare's famous tragic love story 'Romeo and Juliet,'" (in the Jan. 12 edition of the Westfield Republican) it seems like a great segue to some fascinating fruits recently provided to me by my neighbor, Jay Stratton. He asked if I'd ever heard of "medlar fruit," and noted that this fruit is even mentioned in "Romeo and Juliet." No, I didn't remember medlar fruit from either my childhood or the Shakespeare play, but then the reference is a rather bawdy one that probably was not emphasized back in the 1950s when I was a student at WACS.
After eating some of the "ripe" - actually rotten, or bletted - flesh of the medlar from my neighbor, I decided to research this unusual fruit and locate the reference to it in the play. A fascinating website, The Art and Mystery of Food, from July 22, 2007, had an excellent article about "Medlar fruit and Jelly" by Adam Balic, with photos, recipes and the exact quote about the medlar, with explanation as well.
"When it comes to Shakespeare and love the play that springs to mid for most people is 'Romeo and Juliet,' and many people would recognize and understand the following lines:
Medlar fruit, on the left, is pictured next to a quince for size comparison.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
"However, Shakespeare also makes use of other botanical comparisons in the play which are not so clear:
Marybelle Beigh is the current Public Historian for the Town and Village of Westfield. Her office is located at 3 East Main Street in Westfield, N.Y, 14787 - inside Parkview Ice Cream Parlor. Her scheduled office hours are Monday through Friday 9 to 11 a.m.; other hours by appointment.
Beigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 326-2457 (office), 326-6171 (home) or 397-9254 (cell).
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 poperin pear!
"What on earth is Mercutio talking about? Obviously there is more then a whiff of sexual euphemism about these lines, the long tapering poperin pear is bardly slang for (male genitalia), but 'medlar' isn't such a well know fruit now so the reference isn't as clear for modern readers. A 'medlar' is both the name of the tree and the fruit it bears, botanically known as Mespilus germanica. They are part of the Maloideae (apple) subfamily of the rose family Rosaceae and are therefore related to apples, pears and quinces. In appearance the fruit is rather small, dull and brown, although the tree it self is very attractive with dark glossy leaves with silvered undersides and large shining white five petaled flowers in the spring."
Balic shows a photo of a "Quince fruit and the much small medlar for comparison." He adds, "Due to the appearance of the fruit with it's retained sepals and hollow crowned appearance it has been used as euphemistically by the English historically to refer to the anus ('open-arse') or less commonly female genitalia ('open tail'), in much the same way the Italians still refer to the fruit of the fig tree. Unlike the fruit of the fig tree, any resemblance to female genitalia would take a combination poor eye site and considerable wishful thinking. The French are perhaps closer in their phrase 'cul de chien' and Shakespeare does seem to be taking some anatomical license with the meaning he has given. The following 18th century definition of the medlar fruit gives the more usual description of the fruit:
A fruit, vulgarly called an open arse; of which it is more truly than delicately said, that it is never ripe till it is as rotten as a turd, and then it is not worth a fart.
"This description also gives an indication of the other unusual property of the medlar, the fact that it is inedible until it has begun to rot. This process [is] called 'bletting'"
Stratton uses the medlar fruits from his tree, as does Balic, to make jelly in a similar manner to making quince jelly, as well as creating his own recipes, of which he often provides me samples from his kitchen here in Westfield.
This is the first of a series of articles on heirloom fruits in Westfield, including apples and grapes. If you have an old-time apple tree, such as Seek No Further, Northern Spy, Roxbury Russet, Rhode Island Greening, or grape vine such as Pocklington, Clinton, Iona, or Moore's Early Wordes in your back yard, garden, orchard or vineyard, contact Marybelle Beigh, Westfield Historian. Thanks.