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Eastgate Larder on a mission to revive the humble medlar

PUBLISHED: 17:18 13 November 2017

Jane Steward from Eastgate Larder, Pictured with her medlar fruit trees.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Jane Steward from Eastgate Larder, Pictured with her medlar fruit trees. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

Why East Anglian made medlar jelly and medlar cheese should make it onto your Christmas shopping list.

It’s fair to say autumn’s medlars aren’t the most attractive of fruits. Compared, say, to a plump blackberry, its drupelets a rich, ripe purple, the medlar is positively ugly.

To my eyes it’s like an oversized russet apple crossed with a Stranger Things Demogorgon (look it up).

Add to that the fact the fruit requires two to three weeks of careful love after harvesting to be bletted (nurtured to ripeness) and it’s easy to see why this once common part of our diets has been replaced by more exotic, alluring bites from faraway lands, which can be plucked, peeled and devoured in an instant.

But Jane Steward of Eastgate Larder in Aylesham is on a mission – to put the medler back on the map with her range of delectable condiments, which have already become staple stock in many of Norfolk’s top food stores in the short few months they’ve been available.

“I want Norfolk to feel it’s at the vanguard of this revival and I’m looking to sell across the UK,” Jane says proudly, adding she’s selling her wares in London, Wales and Oxfordshire.

Jane’s fascination with medlars began when she met husband David. And when they moved to Norfolk five years ago, it was only with their prized Nottingham Medlar tree in tow – a wedding gift from David’s law firm, and one of the garden’s biggest producers, churning out 12kg of fruit this year alone.

After a cancer diagnosis in 2015, Jane felt a sudden, uncharacteristic urge to be rooted. To grow, make and create. Working with one of her daughters she forged the Eastgate Larder brand, and has now amassed an orchard of 100 medlar trees, from which she produces sweet, delicately scented but boldly fruity medlar jelly and medlar fruit cheese.

Only around a third of the people Jane meets at events have heard of, or even know what a medlar fruit or tree looks like. “Others are astonished and surprised by the story of how the Romans brought them here, or how beautiful the flowers are, or the fact they’re related to the apple.

“People who have medlars in their lives tend to be keen gardeners who have planted them and I’ve equally met lots of people who’ve been sufficiently inspired by what Eastgate Larder is doing to offer me fruit. I’ve been lucky to have been given fruit from 30 locations and I have this amazing stock of medlar fruits that’s been grown naturally in people’s gardens with no pesticides. It’s not going to find itself wasted for the first time ever. There’s this real feeling of collaboration.”

In an act of social kindness that, says Jane, feels like the right thing to do, each donator of fruit to the business nominates a charity, and once the harvest has been weighed, those charities will receive a sum of money. So far benefactors will include Nelson’s Journey, East Anglian Air Ambulance and The Stoke Association.

So what does medlar jelly taste like?

“People describe it to me as tasting of a very very ripe, almost apple flavour. But some have described it as having notes of honey, guava, date or crab apple. It doesn’t have the tannic base notes quince jelly has. I wanted to make sure I was using the fruit in all its glory. We have a long history of making a wide range of preserves and fruit spreads, butters, pastes, cheeses and leathers and that’s one of the main reasons I made fruit cheese. The other, most important, reason is my husband loves it. He adores putting it on toast, but it’s beautiful with blue cheese and hard cheese.”

Jane has a passion for pairing her jelly and cheese with other, artisanal, locally-made products, from Bray’s Cottage pork pies, to Blackbird Cottage’s chicken liver parfait, and Baron Bigod cheese.

“Last night we cooked some Holkham venison for supper and allowed a spoonful of medlar jelly to slacken off and drizzle across the meat.

“It goes with chicken, sausages, game birds – there are no limits. It’s incredibly versatile.”

You can find Eastgate Larder’s products in delis and farm shops across Norfolk and at Slate deli (Aldeburgh and Southwold), Leo’s Deli and Earsham Street Deli, in Suffolk.

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