Medlar: The Best Fruit You’ve Never Heard Of

This week we were luck enough to tag along with Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms on a jaunt to the hills near Tehachapi to help harvest an allusive fruit called the medlar.  Erik and I were just extra hands–the plan was hatched between Tara and Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms. See, Craig has a place up in those hills, and just happened to know his neighbors had a little grove of medlars, and these neighbors agreed to sell them to Craig and Tara, provided Craig and Tara picked them. For us, it was a great excuse for a trip to the mountains with a bunch of friends for some laughs, fresh air and gorgeous fall scenery. Also along for the medlar hunt were Joseph Shuldiner and Graham Keegan. As a group we gathered 100 lbs of medlars in a couple of hours of easy work, which are going to be sold to foodies, rare fruit enthusiasts and perhaps some enterprising chefs at this weekend’s Santa Monica Farmers Market. There’s an article about medlars and this particular expedition in todays’s LA Times.

What is a medlar, you ask? It‘s Mespilus germanica, a small deciduous tree and member of the rose family. In fact, to me, medlar fruit look exactly like giant rosehips. The fruit is smallish, ranging from about 1 to 2 inches in diameter, and ranging in color from rosy rust to dusty brown.

Medlars are native to Southwestern Asia and Southeatsern Europe. They were enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans, doted on by Victorians and mentioned by Shakespeare. I believe they are still popular in their native lands, such as Iran and Turkey. However, they’re almost unknown in the U.S. today, primarily, I suspect, for two reasons. Reason #1 is that they have to be eaten when almost rotten–a process properly called “bletting”–similarly to how you have to wait for Hachiya persimmons to soften before you can eat them. This leads to reason #2, because medlars have to be eaten when bletted, they either have to be eaten right off the tree, or they have to be picked early, then put aside for a few weeks to blet. Then, when they’re finally bletted, they’re have to be eaten immediately. There’s not a huge window of edibility. This level of persnickety-ness just doesn’t jive with our industrial food distribution system.

Beyond that, when they’re ready to eat, they look like they’re ready for the compost heap–brown, squishy, a little wrinkly. It takes some getting used to–well, it takes about as long for you to eat your first one before you figure out rotten=darn good.  I’d describe them as tasting like really good apple butter. People will describe them as holding delicate notes of cinnamon, vanilla, cider, wine, etc. I don’t know about that–I just tasted really, really good apple butter, delivered to me in a convenient skin instead of on toast. The flesh even looks like apple butter. Of course, like all persnickety fruits, they have a few big seeds that you have to work around as well–sort of suck clean and spit out later. It’s worth it, though.
 
We can’t grow medlars here in Los Angeles–it’s too warm. Otherwise I’d plant one right now. Medlars need hot summers and cold, frosty winters. If you live in a place like that, I’d highly recommend you plant a medlar. It’s a small, attractive tree, topping out at about 10 feet, and can be kept bush size. The ones we were harvesting were only 4-6 feet high. They are not widely available, but Raintree Nursery has a selection here.

After the jump is a little photo gallery from our trip:


Craig sorting medlars in the grand countyside

Is this bletted? Tara giving the medlar an evaluating eye
Medlars have beautiful fall foliage, and the fruit remains on the tree after the leaves fall, which is quite striking


There’s me. I’m shaking a branch. We picked up good looking ground fall, gathered what would fall when the branches were given a gentle shake, and picked any fully bletted fruits off the tree. The rest wait for a second harvest. 
Graham, looking more stylin’ than me as he works.


Here’s Joseph. He’s writing a cookbook. Notice how the trees are kept small for easy picking.
All sorted. Getcha medlars here!

medlars to market

Santa Monica Legalizes Beekeeping

Last night the Santa Monica city council voted to amend their municipal code to allow beekeeping on single family properties. Now, legalizing beekeeping is a bit like legalizing sunshine. Bees, after all, do their thing whether or not the government permits it or not. For every beekeeper in an urban area there must be hundreds of feral bee colonies living in walls, roofs and compost bins. Nevertheless, Santa Monica took a big step forward, joining cities around the world such as New York, Denver, Paris and London who have aligned their codes with the laws of nature.

Santa Monica’s amended code establishes a few rules:

  • Beekeepers are limited to two hives.
  • Hives must be registered with the City Animal Control Office.
  • Hives must be five feet from a property line.
  • Hives must have a six foot screen around them or be at least eight feet up (screening forces their flight pattern upwards).
  • Hives must be given enough space so they don’t swarm.
  • Hives must be requeened each year.
  • A water source must be kept nearby.
  • In addition, Santa Monica Animal Control officers were given new clarifications on their search powers when conducting investigations.

All of these requirements make sense to me except requeening and the arbitrary five foot distance (you have to screen them anyways so you’ve already got a six foot fence next to the hive box). And I can’t imagine how requeening, a practice I don’t agree with, will be enforced.  I also hope that the Santa Monica Animal Control officers have the proper level of law enforcement training needed with their new search powers. And it’s unfortunate that you still can’t keep bees on multifamily properties (assuming every tenant signed off on the idea).

Quibbles aside, the Santa Monica City Council did the right thing. Now, what other cities will jump on the common sense bandwagon?

Is Peat Moss a Sustainable Resource?

Two very different views on the ethics of using peat moss: one from garden writer Jeff Ball via Garden Rant,

Here are the simple facts. Canada has over 270 million acres of peat bogs which produce peat moss. Each year the peat moss industry harvests only 40,000 acres of peat moss mostly for horticultural use. If you do the math that comes to one of every 6,000 acres of peat moss is harvested each year. And here is the cherry on top. Peat bogs are living entities. The peat bogs grow 70% more peat moss each year than is harvested. With that data I consider peat definitely a renewable resource.

But Ball’s single source for these facts seems to be the Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss Association. Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor at Washington State University in an article, “The Myth of Permanent Peatlands” (pdf), writes,

Peatlands degraded by mining activity do not revert to their former functionality; changes in hydrology and physical structure are hostile to Sphagnum re-establishment. Recently, degraded peatlands have been restored through the blockage of drainage ditches, seeding with Sphagnum, and application of a mulch layer to reduce water loss. When degraded peatlands are restored, the ability to hold water is improved but CO2 continues to be released by high levels of bacterial respiration, which represents the decomposition of mulch and other organic matter. It takes a number of years for the photosynthetic rate of new peatland plants to outpace the respiratory rate: until this happens, even restored peatlands represent a net loss of carbon to the atmosphere and thus contribute to greenhouse gas production.

Chalker-Scott goes on to list a number of peat moss alternatives including composted bark, coconut coir and paper sludge to name just a few. I use peat moss as part of a homemade seed starting mix. Reading Chalker-Scott’s article has convinced me that this is not an ethical choice.

The peat moss alternative I hear most often suggested is coconut coir. But I’ve heard an equally contradictory argument on the ethics of coir. And this study shows poor results for coir as a peat moss alternative in a seed starting mix. I tried my own comparison last summer and came up with the same results as that study. Oh, how this all gets so complicated!

So, I’m going to throw this open to you, our dear readers. I’m interested in hearing your opinions on peat moss. I’m also interested in hearing if any of you know a good peat-less, homemade seed propagation medium recipe, preferably from a reliable source. Leave some comments!

Your Questions Answered

Patching into our Google voice number.

Got behind in answering our questions by phone–sorry! Here’s our belated reply:

Question from Liz: Do we have bees?

A: Yes, but not on our property. We keep bees the “backwards” way, i.e. naturally, without the many treatments and gadgets most beekeepers use. Bees are probably the easiest of all our crazy home ec projects. They don’t really take much tending. For more information on backwards beekeeping see www.backwardsbeekeepers.com. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, the Backwards Beekeepers hold a monthly meeting and maintain a Yahoo group. See the website for details. If you’re not in the LA area the Backwards website has lots of how-to videos starring the always entertaining Kirk Anderson.

Question from Katie: How do you keep chickens on a small lot? In a run or with a chicken tractor? How do you keep the smells down?

A: From our limited experience with our first flock of four hens, they definitely are happier when they have space to run around. I guess it depends on the disposition of the flock.  I had to enlarge their run when I found them pecking at each other. Our backyard landscaping is not open enough to use a chicken tractor, but that might be an option, though I’d worry about predator proofing it. We have a wicked raccoon problem here. As for keeping smells down, we use a “deep bedding” method–we throw down a very thick layer of straw or leaves, 6 to 12 inches, that we get at the feed store. I keep throwing straw in the run as needed. It kind of composts in place. I rake it out once a year and throw it on the compost pile. It does a good job of keeping smells and fly populations down. The thick bedding also keeps them busy–they like to scratch around in it.

Accidental Garden Design: Pomegranate and Prickly Pear

Can good garden design be taught or is it something you’re born with? If it’s inherited I didn’t get that gene, unfortunately. But at least a garden can sometimes put on a good show despite the gardener’s lack of design sense. Above, the view out our front window of our pomegranate tree (Punica granatum ‘Wondeful’) against our overgrown prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica).

These two plants have a lot in common. They both produce abundant and nutritious food in a dry climate with little or no attention other than yearly pruning. They combine beauty and free produce with no work. Both are rich in symbolism. I could go on, but the photo says all that needs to be said.

Cohousing Talk Tonight at the LA Ecovillage

Sorry for the late notice, but cohousing coaches Raines Cohen and Betsy Morris will be speaking tonight at 7:30 pm at the LA Ecovillage. More information here. I’m planning on attending.

I predict a big growth in cohousing arrangements particularly as baby boomers age. We certainly need more community and less anonymity in a big city like Los Angeles. Hope to meet more of our readers tonight!

Return of Bean Friday! Chickpea, Pasta and Tomato Soup

This is the soup at day two, when the pasta started to fall apart. It was prettier day one, with all the pasta whole and springy. But you get the idea.

This one is a keeper. I had to share. We forget how good chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) can be. They get relegated to hummus duty and not much else. This is a mistake. When cooked right, chickpeas take on a sweet creaminess that ought to make them the queen of beans.

This recipe highlights chickpeas, using them both whole and pureed to make a rich, surprisingly creamy soup flavored with tomato and the faint perfume of rosemary. It also is a very simple recipe, requiring only 3 major ingredients, no stock, and not much in the way of prep. It does take a while to cook, but very little of your time is spent in the kitchen.

I found this recipe in the very useful The Silver Spoon cookbook, where it’s called Pasta e Ceci alla Toscana. The quantity made by the recipe was pretty small, and when I make soup, I make a lot, so I doubled their quantities. This is my interpretation.

————

Allow three hours of cooking time

You need:

2 cups dried chickpeas. Please don’t use canned beans for this recipe–I don’t think it will work. I also doubt other types of beans would work quite as well.
1 28 oz. can of chopped tomatoes, or the equivalent fresh or home canned, chopped to spoon size if necessary.
8 oz. (approx.) of dried penne pasta, or any other shape pasta you prefer.
4 garlic cloves, peeled (and chopped if you don’t have a garlic press)
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
Fresh Parmesan for topping, optional

The recipe called for not only an overnight soak for the beans, but also for three hours of cooking time. That seemed like overkill. What I ended up doing was letting my two cups of dried beans soak on the counter for 2 or 3 hours, by which time they’d doubled in size.  I’m not sure if pre-soaking is necessary at all, really. The long cooking time may be necessary to get the beans silky enough. This will all be the subject of future experiments.

Put your (maybe) soaked beans in a big pot and cover them with about 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. At that point, scoop out about 2 cups of the beans (about half of the total) and a little of their liquid and puree them until smooth. Return the puree to the pot. (This step is the secret to the soup’s creaminess) Cover again, and cook for another 1 1/2 hours.

In the last half hour or so of cooking time, heat up a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a deep skillet. Using a garlic press, squeeze the garlic cloves into the oil (or added chopped garlic) and add the chopped herbs. Immediately add all of the tomatoes to the pan, including their juices. In my case, I just dumped in a 28 oz can of chopped tomatoes. Simmer this mix for about 15 minutes.

Add the cooked tomato mixture to the soup pot, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Return to a simmer.

Finally, add the dried pasta (the original recipe called for fresh tagliatelle, just fyi). I added about 8 oz. of penne pasta, because I thought the penne would look nice with the whole garbanzos. Cook until the pasta is al dente, about 15 more minutes.

Add more water at any time during the process if it’s starting to look too thick. This soup can be as thin or thick as you like it, really. 

When the pasta is ready, do any final adjustments with S & P. It’s amazing how little seasoning this soup needs.

Pour into bowls and dress with lots of fresh grated Parmesan, fresh ground pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. The cheese makes it extra rich and tasty, but you can also serve it vegan style.

——

I’d classify this soup as kid friendly, vegan friendly, and husband friendly. Erik really liked it, and he is often suspicious of soup–he just doesn’t think soup is real food. (I know! He a lunatic.) But the pasta in it fooled him into thinking it was more of a pasta dish than a measly bowl of soup. Win-win!

Genetically Modified Oranges Coming to a Store Near You

The ACP via UC Riverside

A tiny insect known as the Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP for short) spreads a incurable bacterial citrus disease known as huanglongbing (HLB) or “greening.” Once a tree is infected with HLB there is no cure–you have to cut down the tree. HLB and a host of other problems, including thousand of acres of abandoned citrus groves, have devastated the Florida citrus industry. The psyllid made its way to California and the industry here is alarmed that HLB will soon follow. A Reuters story on HLB, “A day without genetically altered orange juice” has a number of astonishing revelations,

The bacterium that causes citrus greening is so lethal that the U.S. government classified it among potential bioterror tools known as “select agents” until about two years ago, severely limiting the scientific community’s ability to conduct research into the organism.

Yet another example of terrorism fears getting in the way of common sense.

The Reuters story goes on to discuss the development of genetically modified orange varieties resistant to the disease. Calvin Arnold, Laboratory Director of the U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory in Fort Pierce, Florida, reacting to possible consumer push back on the issue of GMO oranges, suggests,

I think especially here in the U.S., they’re understanding transgenics a lot better. Just like people go to Taco Bell, they know they’re eating crops that have been produced transgenically,” Arnold said.

I try to stay open minded about GMO. It may indeed be the case that if we want either bananas or oranges we may have to resort to GMO. But I think our energies might be better spent on preventative pest management strategies. Our large scale agricultural system leaves us vulnerable to unexpected “black swan” events like HLB, colony collapse disorder and SARS. We may enjoy the efficiencies that come with globalization and huge monocultures, but Mother Nature doesn’t work that way, and she will, ultimately, defeat our intentions with tragic results. A more biodiverse and distributed agricultural system with far less international and interstate shipment of goods is less vulnerable. It’s too late to deal with HLB this way, but perhaps we can head off other catastrophes. In the end, more of us will have to to plant our own vegetable gardens and run small farms.

A last, ironic tidbit in that Reuter’s story–for a disease whose spread was facilitated by globalization–some of the labor intensive research necessary to deal with HLB is being . . . outsourced to China.

Moving Bees Out of a Meter Box

Nuc box (new home) on left–utility box enclosure (old home) on right.

I got an email the other day from someone who had a beehive in his electric meter box, a popular destination for bees in this area. It was a very small hive that had taken up residence just a few weeks ago. The house was about to be put up for sale so I had to get them out pronto.

I brought along a cardboard nuc box–a temporary hive box used to transport bees. I smoked the electrical box (actually a wooden enclosure that surrounded the actual electrical box) to calm the bees. I cut out the small piece of comb and tied it in a frame which I placed in the nuc box.

Now came the hardest part of these hive “cutouts,” as they’re called: convincing the hive to move out of their old home and into the nuc box. Normally I would spray them with sugar water to immobilize them, brush them into a dust pan and dump them into the nuc box. But these bees scampered up into the inaccessible upper part of the electrical box enclosure.  I discussed demolishing the enclosure to get at the bees, but the homeowner was, understandably, reluctant to do that just before putting the house up for sale.

In desperation, I remembered something that organic beekeeper Michael Bush suggested, that you could use your smoker to herd the bees to where you want them to go. Sure enough, a few puffs of smoke brought the bees to where I could flick at them with a paint brush and catch them with a piece of newspaper as they fell, covered in sticky sugar water. After a few minutes of desperate flicking and sugar water spraying, much to my astonishment, down plops the queen. She landed, gracelessly, upside down and alone on the newspaper. Thankfully, she was uninjured. I couldn’t believe my luck. Just a few minutes earlier I thought that the homeowner would have to call an exterminator.

I put the queen in the nuc box and flicked the rest of the bees out of wooden enclosure–most of them took flight. I quickly plugged up all the entrances to the electrical box with painter’s tape and steel wool and put the nuc box on a ladder near their old hive entrance.

The moral of the story? Wherever the queen is, the rest of the bees will follow. Within minutes worker bees began fanning the entrance to their new home to alert the others to head into the nuc box. I took a long break to give foraging workers in the field a chance to join their queen in her new home. After the sun went down, I plugged up the entrance to the nuc box and taped it up carefully as the bees were to travel with me in a hatchback (not the ideal automotive choice for beekeeping duties). After an epic freeway journey the hive arrived at its new home in Altadena.

This hive is so small that their odds for survival at this time of year aren’t good. But at least they have a chance. Hold this young colony in your thoughts.

Fading into the Soft White

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Honeybees congregate on our floating row covers to die. Every day, two, three, four or five will choose to land one last time on this billowing white fabric that covers one of our garden beds. There they will cling while their strength wanes, until they fall off to be lost in the mulch.

I know worker bees don’t live very long. They work so hard that by the end of their lives, their wings hang in shreds. Their little bodies just give out. And I know that I should not think of them as individuals, but as expression of the will of the Hive. Still, there’s something melancholy about the way they ride these white waves. Perhaps their fading senses lead them to the brightest place they can find.