29 December, 2013

Sun Court, Hadleigh

Sun Court, Hadleigh

Hadleigh is a small market town in south Suffolk, in eastern England.

Map link: Hadleigh

Like many towns in the area, Hadleigh prospered from the trade in wool and cloth during the Middle Ages.  The streets in the town centre still feature many handsome timber-framed houses built by successful medieval merchants.

The East Anglian medieval wool trade forms the background to The Town House by Norah Lofts (reviewed here earlier).  The inspiration for the house built in the 15th century by the central character, the peasant-turned-wool-merchant Martin Reed, may have been one of the houses in the centre of Hadleigh, Sun Court.

According to the Hadleigh town website, Norah Lofts saw Sun Court when she was house-hunting in Suffolk.  The house had been built centuries ago for a wool merchant. It still has a large door onto the street, big enough for a laden pack pony to enter, with a smaller door inset for people to use.

Close-up of the main door at Sun Court, showing the smaller inset door

You may wonder why even the most dedicated merchant would want to let his pack ponies into his house (!).  In The Town House, Martin Reed’s house was originally much smaller and on only one side of the passage.  He later built a solar for his bewitching wife Magda to dance in (Martin’s solar was also, apparently, inspired by one of the rooms in Sun Court), and left a space between the new solar and the original house so that the pack ponies could still get from the street to the yard behind the house.  Later, Martin roofed over this space to create a covered passage from the street entrance to his yard and built rooms above it.  So the packhorses now trotted through Martin’s house to get from the street to the yard.  Subsequent owners remodelled the house and changed its use over the succeeding centuries, but the central passage – and its packhorse-sized door – was such a key part of the structure that it always remained. (Whether this reflects the real history of Sun Court or whether it is purely fiction, I have no idea – but houses do evolve in this sort of haphazard fashion, so it seems entirely plausible).

22 December, 2013

December recipe: Medlar jelly


The medlar is an unusual fruit. Related to the rose family, the fruit looks a little like a gigantic brown rose hip.  The fruits can be harvested after the first frost or left to fall off the tree by themselves. 

When first harvested, medlars have hard white flesh and are quite inedible. They have to be left in a cool dry place to ‘blet’, a sort of ripening process, for a few weeks. During the bletting process, the hard white flesh softens to a deep brown paste.
Unbletted medlars (left), partially bletted medlars (middle) and bletted medlars (right)
Once bletted, medlars can be eaten raw, although it’s a fiddly job to pick out the seeds.  I prefer to turn them into medlar jelly.  This amber-coloured aromatic jelly is delicious with cold meats, especially poultry. (So it could come in handy in a few days’ time as an accompaniment to the remains of the Christmas turkey).  It’s a fairly straightforward process, although it’s time-consuming because of the wait for the juice to strain.  Here’s my recipe.

Medlar Jelly

Bletted medlars, approximately 3 lb (approx. 1.5 kg)
Water, 1 pint per 1 lb fruit (approx. 1.25 litres per 1 kg)

Granulated sugar, 1 lb per 1 pint of strained juice (approx. 800g per 1 litre)
Rind and juice of half a lemon per 1 pint of strained juice (per approx. 550 ml)

Sort the medlars.  They are bletted when they are dark brown and feel soft all over.  If when you cut the fruit up you find that a small part of the fruit is still hard (as with the medlars in the middle of the photograph above) it’s OK as long as most of the fruit is bletted.

Wash the medlars.

Cut the medlars into quarters and put them in a large saucepan, making a note of the weight of fruit.

Add 1 pint of water per 1 lb of medlars (approx. 1.25 litres per 1 kg).  Put a lid on the saucepan and bring to the boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer for about 1 hour until the medlars are soft and pulpy.  Remove from the heat.

Hang a jelly bag or a double layer of cotton or muslin cloth over a large bowl.  I use two old tea towels tied to the legs of an upturned stool (see photo).  Pour the contents of the saucepan into the jelly bag or cloth so that the juice drains into the bowl.  Leave to strain for a couple of hours (or overnight, if this is more convenient).

Straining the medlar pulp

When all the juice has strained through, discard the pulp.

Measure the amount of juice.

Put 1 pint of juice in a large saucepan with 1 lb of granulated sugar (approx. 800g sugar per 1 litre juice). Add the rind and juice of half a lemon. Heat gently, stirring all the time, until the sugar has dissolved.

Add about a teaspoon of butter (I am told this helps to prevent the jelly sticking to the pan, and have never been brave enough to try missing it out to see what happens).
Bring to the boil.  It should boil at a full rolling boil, i.e. bubbles should cover the whole surface of the jelly and it should boil hard enough to spit occasionally.  Don’t lean over the pan, and keep pets and small children out of the way, as a spit of boiling jelly can give an unpleasant burn.

Boil until the jelly reaches setting point.  Test for set by dripping a teaspoon of jelly onto a cold plate.  It should form a pool (if it forms a bead, the jelly is done; take it off the heat immediately).  Push the pool with your finger.  If it wrinkles, the jelly has reached setting point.  If not, boil for another 2 minutes and test again.  I find it usually takes about 15-20 minutes to reach setting point.

Remove from the heat.  Pour into a heatproof jug, then use the jug to pour into jars.  Cover and seal immediately.  I use cling film and then a screw-top lid.

The jelly is ready for use as soon as it has cooled down, and will keep in a cupboard for at least a couple of years.

Medlar jelly