17 March 2021
Enterprise and Events Coordinator, Susy Oram, tells us more about the medlar trees at Kettle’s Yard, and explains how staff make annual use of the fruits.
‘What type of tree is that?’ ask many visitors to Kettle’s Yard as they look out the windows in the Bechstein Room and Helen Ede’s bathroom, usually following ‘how did they get the piano in?’ and ‘where is the kitchen?’. The trees in question, gnarled and bare in deep winter but transformed between spring and autumn by green then burnt orange leaves, bright blossom and unusual fruit, are medlar trees or mespilus germanica. These ornamental trees are indigenous to Iran, south-western Asia and south-eastern Europe and are said to have been cultivated for over 3,000 years.
There are two medlar trees at Kettle’s Yard, one at the back of the cottages and visible from Helen’s bathroom, which is rather small and bears little fruit, and another larger and healthier tree in the cottage garden. Beti Evans, a Visitor Assistant from 1990 to 2015, remembers that the smaller tree is the original tree and was planted most likely by Jim and Helen Ede where the healthy tree is now. Michael Harrison, Director from 1992 to 2011, then put the small unhealthy tree round the back in the 1990s and replaced it with a very healthy new tree, which is the one that is now in the cottage garden.
The strikingly sculptural shape yet unassuming scale of the medlar tree, as well as its changing appearance throughout the seasons makes it easy to imagine why Jim and Helen selected this particular variety of tree to sit outside their home. Just as the light falls differently onto the artworks in the House as the year passes and certain beautiful sights are only spotted by the lucky few who are in the right room at the right time – the shadow of the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska sculpture (Dancer, 1913) in the Dancer Room and the rainbow on the Brancusi head (Prometheus, 1912) on the piano come to mind – so too do the trees offer different delights depending on when you see them. Glossy leaves adorn the thick, curled branches for much of the year, emerging gloriously green in spring before autumn turns them strikingly orange. The trees are sprinkled with white blossom and unusually-shaped brownish-green leathery fruit in spring and summer.
The French call the medlar tree the ‘cul de chien’, referring to the peculiar shape of the fruit. Chaucer, Shakespeare and D.H. Lawrence all use the fruit in their works, lending them rather unfavourable nicknames both due to the shape of the fruit and that they are not edible until almost rotting. Jim Ede, however, like with so much else, seems to have recognised a certain beauty in the medlar. His appreciation of the aesthetic beauty of the natural world and its infinite forms, textures and colour, clearly visible and much-remarked upon inside his home, appears to have extended outside to the space surrounding the cottages. The same could be said of the fig tree that stands in the courtyard at the entrance to Kettle’s Yard with its architectural lobed foliage which provides shade in summer for visitors to the café and fruit to improve the lunches of many staff members over the years!
The medlar trees also provide further reward for Kettle’s Yard staff in the form of medlar jelly. The making of the jelly, just in time for Christmas, is a more recent tradition than most at Kettle’s Yard. The task has been taken on by several members of staff since Sabrina Rippon, a Visitor Assistant for over twenty years, made the first batch in 2013. Carolyn Emery, another former Visitor Assistant took on the mantle for three years and I made the 2020 batch. There is no evidence of anyone, including Jim or Helen Ede, making the jelly before this but, given Jim’s hate of waste and skill at repurposing natural objects, it’s not difficult to imagine that the Edes’ reason for the choice of a medlar extended beyond its appearance.
Happily, the making of the Kettle’s Yard medlar jelly was one thing that didn’t have to be cancelled in 2020 and it served as a pleasant distraction from other events. Some of us spent a bright sunny November afternoon in the cottage garden picking the fruit while they were still rock hard. They were taken home and left to ‘blet’, or soften until the point just before rotting, in a cool dark space indoors – in this case my shoe cupboard! After a couple of weeks, they were ready to be cooked in several batches. Any leaves were removed and the medlars were added to a large saucepan of water with some lemon juice, brought to the boil and left to simmer for a hour or so. The fruit and liquid were then left to drip through muslin-lined sieves overnight. The next day, the resulting juice was boiled with sugar to make the clear golden jelly, being careful not to overboil it and risk a brick of cement-like paste! After being left to set in sterilised jars, the jelly was shared among members of Kettle’s Yard staff – first come, first served!
The jelly is delicious with manchego or any other hard cheese, or it can be served with meat as an alternative to redcurrant jelly. Its relative rarity in shops makes the annual Kettle’s Yard variety a real festive treat and is another of the many delights Jim and Helen Ede left for successive generations to discover and enjoy.
Kettle’s Yard medlar jelly is made using the WI Book of Jams and handwritten notes from Sabrina Rippon, but many recipes for medlar jelly are available online, including this one by Nigel Slater from the Royal Horticultural Society.
With thanks to Sabrina and Pete Rippon and Beti Evans.